The Michael Ritchie / Robert Redford collaboration The Candidate plays on Turner Classic Movies in early September. My piece on the film just went up on the TCM website. Watching this 1972 film in light of the 2008 Presidential race was quite the eye-opener. I realized that, for all the clips I’d glimpsed over the years, I’d never sat down and watched the entire film. And seeing the way that the the race shaped the man who vowed he would never let the political process change his convictions or his message reminded of both Barack Obama and John McCain – Obama as the younger idealist facing the realities of electioneering and the momentum of the campaign machine that grinds on with or without him, McCain as the individualist remaking himself over into the paragon of the party message, even if it contradicts positions he’s fervently held for years.
The film plays on TCM on September 3. My piece is running now.
To give the film greater immediacy, Ritchie and Redford shot much of the film like a political documentary. Campaign stops and speeches made around the state were staged like actual rallies, with crowds of citizens cheering on his speeches (it’s been reported that some audiences believed that he really was running for office) and cameras filming it all as if it was a news event. To add to the verisimilitude, real local and national television news reporters appeared as themselves to comment upon the campaign (including a fictional editorial by the respected Howard K. Smith), and active politicians can be seen interacting with the fictional campaign. In one scene, Redford’s friend and former co-star Natalie Wood appears as herself.
The Candidate straddles the line between cynicism about the way election campaigns pander to the media and a frankness about the negotiations between the ideals of a candidate and the way he shapes his persona and message to get heard by the public and get votes in the election. What played as cynicism and satire then, however, is simply business as usual today, which is one of the reasons the film remains so prescient. The Candidate is set in the era of 16mm news cameras and one inch industrial videotapes, a time when there is no such thing as 24 hour news channels or viral Internet video. But while the tools and the news cycle have changed, the careful cultivation of message and image, the political doublespeak and opportunistic pandering is as contemporary as ever.
Read the complete essay here.