Bagel Over the White House: The Candidate (1972)

Welcome, one and all, to Bagel Over the White House, what will hopefully be the inaugural edition of a recurring column in which I take a look at American politics on film and behind the scenes. I’m not gonna shoot myself in the foot and promise that these will come out with any regularity on account of juggling school and work right now, but I hope to get one of these out every now and then. Anyway, let’s get into our first movie.

I decided on starting this column off with The Candidate for several reasons. One is that I just had to watch this for class, so that’s like an easy time-saving thing for me; the other is that this film is actually a pretty light watch despite the wonk-ishness of its subject matter. The Candidate tells the dual story of Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a campaign manager who needs to find a candidate he can win a Senate election with, and Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the former governor’s son who Lucas recruits. Because it’s 1972, the statement the film has to make about politics is pretty basic: sometimes you have to conceal your true self a bit to win an election. Watergate hasn’t happened yet, so movie-goers still get to jerk off over how smart they are for seeing this film and learning this important lesson. The film is even shot in a documentary style to remind you how capital-R Real it is.

We start with Lucas recruiting McKay from the community law office he works at. Republican Senator from California and perfectly-named old white guy Crocker Jarmon is up for reelection, but his massive popularity has stopped any Democrats from even bothering to try and run against him. Thus, Lucas comes to McKay, the son of a very popular former governor, to try and get him to enter the primary. Here we come to one of the more unusual things about The Candidate: the titular character has an explicit party affiliation. This is actually quite odd for a film or TV show about a fictional politician. As much as the American right loves to whine about liberal bias in Hollywood, most outright political pieces of art like to avoid making their heroes or villains Democrats or Republicans in name so that the film can appeal to a broader audience. The Candidate choosing a side for its protagonist was probably more viable in the early 70s when partisanship was significantly less strong than it is now.

One of the central issues of the campaign, environmentalism, also owes itself to the 70s political climate. The idea that we don’t all want to die after our tap water causes our house to explode is just starting to be co-opted into the mainstream at this time, which you can see in Jarmon’s begrudging acknowledgement that we should maybe do something about California’s air before it becomes a solid. McKay is convinced in part to start campaigning because he cares about the environment and is convinced Jarmon really doesn’t, ultimately cruising to a primary win against a weak field on his dad’s name alone. As is the case now, a familiar last name is about all you need at the state level as long as the overall climate isn’t super upset with career politicians at the moment, so this fact definitely rings true.

From there, we see the McKay team make their way through most of what are now campaign-film genre staples: responding to a natural disaster to get some camera time, meeting with union bigwigs to get their endorsements, and schmoozing with celebrities (featuring a cameo from Natalie Wood 2 years after she semi-retired from acting and 10 years before she definitely for sure totally naturally drowned and wasn’t murdered). McKay is trailing Jarmon through all this in part because his father has refused to endorse him, a plot point which led Jeb Bush to call this “one of the best horror films of all time.”

As you might expect, the climax of the film is a debate between McKay and Jarmon. McKay comes off very Jeb-esque for most of this with his slimy, non-committal answers until he gets fed up with giving his coached responses and goes off at the end about how the campaign is ignoring base-level issues of race and class for needless posturing over the symptomatic issue of crime. This nearly destroys him until the elder McKay swoops in with a last-minute endorsement, completely burying the story of the debate in his glad-handing and fatherly love. As quaint as the rest of the film is, this moment still lands pretty well; McKay’s one moment of actual honesty through the whole campaign process nearly kills his chances until it’s neutralized by more meaningless bullshit. Clearly, some people in 1972 were already tired of the lack of substance in campaigning, an issue which has only gotten worse since then thanks to the advent of more media platforms on which to bullshit. We end on McKay being declared the victor and his unanswered question to Lucas:

Vague and morally ambiguous endings are totally hip in the 1970s as the country remains in a state of flux. Americans, like most people, love to feel that they are part of some grand narrative. The narrative of America as an unstoppable force for good has been in full force for (white) America up until very recently when The Candidate is released, but the Vietnam War and the evils exposed by the Civil Rights Movement have begun to call that into question. Real life no longer has happy endings in the American mind, even when the protagonist wins.

The Candidate owes its impressive sense of realism to director Michael Ritchie having worked on John V. Tunney’s actual 1970 Senate campaign and screenwriter Jeremy Larner having been a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign. The latter is more interesting to me. The presidential campaign of that year was an absolute fucking nightmare, featuring an assassination and massive riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention, but none of that chaos really comes across here. As I’ve said a couple times already, some of the film seems very dated (and probably did just a couple years later when a president had resigned after doing so much worse during a campaign than the movie could have imagined), but it’s still worth a watch. The Candidate manages to overcome the severe drawback of being a movie from the early 70s to be pretty light and well-paced, and Redford is as great as he always is. Ultimately, it’s a pretty simple movie for the couple years in between 1968 and 1973 where politics was in between shitshows.

Thanks for reading, Avocados! If you have additional thoughts on the film, the historical context it was in, or suggestions for future films this column should tackle, please leave them below.