Cinema: The Least Hurrah

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California Lawyer Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is for clean air, clean water, clean beaches and clean politics. When Lucas, the state's Democratic kingmaker, discovers him, McKay is in his blue denim shirtsleeves down among the poor, trying to lend a helping hand with some everyday legal wrangles. Lucas (Peter Boyle) watches him in action for a while, then makes his move: Would McKay like to run for the U.S. Senate?

McKay has almost impeccable credentials for the job. His ecology speeches and civil liberties record do him credit. He has the good name of his father, redoubtable former Governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas). Furthermore, a visit to Republican Incumbent Crocker Jarmon's campaign picnic convinces him that Jarmon (Don Porter) is an affable fake.

With Lucas oiling up the electoral machine, McKay takes his primary contest handily. In the election he gets so caught up in the fever of the campaign and the persuasiveness of Lucas' tutorials in Realpolitik that he begins gaining points on Jarmon by compromising his principles. At the outset of the campaign, when reporters ask "What about property taxes?" he replies, "I don't know." Later he has learned to refer questioners to complex, five-point position papers prepared by his staff, and to give cagey, vague answers during televised debates.

Eventually he trounces Jarmon on the strength of his charisma alone. The last scene of the movie shows him looking conscience-stricken as he rummages about for his shattered ideals.

The Candidate might have been a cool and cynical analysis of the contemporary political process. Scenarist Larner was a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. He knows all the intricacies of political infighting, and the movie deals with such matters competently enough. But Larner never makes McKay believable as a man. All we know about him is that he has something of a communication problem with his father.

Director Michael Ritchie borrows heavily from the work of John Frankenheimer. Fast, edgy editing and countless compositions involving television monitors come straight out of The Manchurian Candidate, where they looked and worked better. Most of The Candidate is constructed around press conferences, windswept campaign speeches and sweaty conferences in back rooms and back seats of limousines, giving the viewer the impression that he is looking at unused footage from a television documentary.

Ritchie and Larner stack the cards by making all McKay supporters well-fed suburban liberals or eager youths with a renewed faith in the electoral process. Jarmon's people are loud, right-wing, wrong-thinking rednecks who are not even photogenic. Neither the authentic political atmosphere nor canny performances by Redford, Boyle and Porter go far to cut through the basic glibness of the film. Ritchie incorporates numerous television political commercials and makes a point of their smooth dishonesty and wily distortion. None, however have less substance than The Candidate.