21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 22


Politician as hero

Christopher Hudson

The Candidate (' A' Bloomsbury), directed by Michael Ritchie who made Downhill Racer, is the best film about American electioneering politics since The President's Analyst. A young lawyer, whose father once was Governor of California and leader of the minority party (clearly the Democrats) is cold-bloodedly picked out by the party campaign leader to oppose the Republican incumbent for the Californian Senate seat. As a politician-inthe-making, Bill McKay has all the right qualities, even if he doesn't yet appreciate them. He is young (a 'new image '), energetic, resilient (can cope with being packaged and sold), good-looking (presentable in front of the television cameras), a fluent speaker (can learn to move easily into the higher jargon), and sincerely angered by discrimination and inequality (has an eye for the liberal issues). He is persuaded to oppose the Republican, Crocker Jarmon, on the understanding that he will lose, and is therefore free to say what he likes.

As the campaign gets under way, it becomes apparent that Bill McKay is in with a chance. At once the pressure mounts, and the presentation of the candidate becomes the first priority. While he is guided, prompted, chided and harried by the campaign manager (an impressively fanatic performance by Peter Boyle) a producer from commercial television arranges confrontations and interviews. He presents McKay as the man in the home, the man in the street, the man on the beaches, and skilfully edits the resulting footage — trimming out off-the-cuff promises, ungainly expressions and other instances of unplanned spontaneity. The campaign urges him forward into speaking engagements, television appearances and major campaign speeches. The flags are out, giant portraits loom above the rostra, and music swells behind the closing cadences of each candidate as he pounds the table and orates about faith, compassion, the old, the black, the poor, the weak, the badly housed, compassion, faith, the need to pull together as one. McKay is younger, less cynical about his application of sincerity, but the rhetoric is much the same; the fine phrases bubble out brightly and dissolve in the smokefilled room.

The Candidate is as exciting and dramatic as any play, but it is not .presented histrionically. Its implicit evidence is that electioneering politics is a theatrical performance with its own scriptwriters, make-up girls, prop men and stage-directors. The hero is the politician: he moves to plotted stage instructions; he speaks plotted lines. Robert Redford is the candidate, McKay, and in playing the part well and authentically, he becomes himself a feasible candidate. One of the film's successful ironies is the realisation it compels that an intelligent and above all photogenic actor, baked by a sophisticated party machine, would have in the American system an immediate advantage over rivals who are less presentable on television and in the street. Whether his views are those of Ronald Reagan or Paul Newman, Shirley Temple Black or Shirley Maclaine, it emerges that the actor has a supra-political appeal, like that of a constitutional monarch. Robert Redford, one is glad to hear, disapproves of this.

Two other matters of interest are highlighted by The Candidate. The. first is that clear-cut political issues of a controversial nature cannot be sustained throughout a campaign. When presentation is as important as this, one misplaced emphasis — in support of school bussing for instance — can be exaggerated by the media until it overshadows every other issue the candidate wants to raise. The second, as the candidate's campaign catches alight and he learns to expect automatic congratulation and support from partisan crowds, is the difficulty not to super-boarding-house of that name in the believe that his election speeches, in their mixture of political placebos and rousing rhodomontade, are important statements coming from an important man.