Making the Grades
If election campaigns leave you feeling a little cold, then The Candidate likely won’t warm you to the process. In 1973, this well-written, but cynical script about the people in politics won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. In it, Robert Redford plays Bill McKay, a California lawyer who has been exposed to the public service arena although he’s never held office. Watching his father, John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas), wrangle his way around the governor’s mansion seems to have dissuaded Bill from ever seeking a post.
However, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) is a campaign manager looking for a Democratic candidate to run against an aging Republican incumbent. He believes Bill has the youthful image, the famous name and the popular appeal to make him a contender—though he tells Bill he isn’t expecting a win. Still Marvin lures the young lawyer into running against Senator Jarmon (Don Porter) with the promise that the liberally minded attorney can say anything he wants about the current issues.
Without the worry of winning, Bill becomes an aggressively outspoken advocate for abortion, health reform, employment and environmental issues. And though his Democratic position isn’t popular in the heavily Republican stronghold, Bill’s openness (and the lack of any other Democratic contenders) appeals to many citizens and before he knows it he easily wins his party’s senatorial nomination. Now he is faced with the prospect of a humiliating loss against the Republicans in the upcoming election unless he runs a serious campaign in the final contest.
But as he becomes driven by his standing in the opinion polls, his strong political statements on dicey issues are reduced to platitudes and replaced with snappy slogans and slick campaign posters. The trappings of his newfound popularity also entangle him. When women throw themselves at him at rallies and expose their underclothing to catch his attention, Bill’s supposedly upstanding moral values waver as well. (Bill is late for an important meeting because he is supposedly accepting sexual favors from one of his female staffers.)
Manipulation, underhanded dealings and the difficulty of maintaining one’s standards are all questioned in this film that underscores the challenges of political life. But before sharing this movie with their older teens, parents should be aware of the frequent, historical depictions of cigarette and alcohol use. The script also contains a moderate number of profanities including one sexually suggestive expletive.
Still, with some type of elections always on the horizon, The Candidate will hopefully encourage voters to look more closely at the nominees running for office and demand that they offer more than catchy clichés or clever sound bites for their campaign platform.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Candidate.
What does this film reveal about the political campaign trail? Who proves to be the real power? What voter friendly qualities does Bill McKay have that Marvin Lucas does not? Does Bill become a willing participant in Marvin’s plot?
Why are the Democrats upset when the news anchors begin predicting a Republican win before the voting polls are closed?
How difficult would it be for a politician to avoid the trappings of power and entitlement that seem to come with the role in this movie? Does this script cast an especially negative view of the political machine and the people involved in it? Are all elected people equally susceptible to the negative impact of holding office? What kind of support do upstanding politicians deserve?