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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Decades before Vice, another political dramedy examined the business of politics

Illustration for article titled Decades before Vice, another political dramedy examined the business of politics
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Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the Academy Awards right around the corner, we’re suggesting the perfect pairings for this year’s Best Picture nominees—movies to watch with, or instead of, each of them. 


The Candidate (1972)

Whatever one thinks of Vice, Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated satirical portrait of Dick Cheney, it’s an undeniably bold gambit to build a political biography around an individual known for lacking cinematic charisma. The movie’s Cheney is written, directed, and played as a man who becomes a growly strategist in amoral pursuit of power, much more so than a particular ideology. Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, from 1972, makes a strong companion to Vice, because its (fictional) lead character, played by Robert Redford, is so oppositional to the movie’s Cheney: He’s a handsome, charismatic Democrat who has entered politics entirely in service of his personal ideals. As a bonus, Redford’s Bill McKay shares a surname with Vice’s director.

The Candidate opens with Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a political operative smarting from a recent Democratic defeat, seeking out Redford’s McKay—the son of a beloved career politician—to run in a California senate race against a popular Republican incumbent. McKay, an activist lawyer, isn’t interested until it’s made clear that he’s expected to lose, and can mostly say whatever he wants during his campaign. Free to address his pet issues, including economic injustice and the environment, McKay starts off speaking his mind. But in attempting to gin up a respectable loss rather than a blowout, his run starts to look a little more traditional.

The movie is justifiably cynical about the political process, but it neither idealizes nor satirizes Bill McKay. His values are genuine—as is the fact that he doesn’t always have actual policy ideas to back them up. Part of what makes the movie so fascinating is that Redford is well-suited to both roles. He’s convincing as a plainspoken idealist, and his hard-to-rattle golden-boy veneer also makes him convincingly callow, even evasive, as his campaign starts resorting to generalities and equivocations.

As with McKay (the director, not the candidate), some of the other movies on Ritchie’s filmography are flat-out comedies (Fletch, the original Bad News Bears), and like Vice, The Candidate doesn’t go quite as broad in its humor. Stylistically, the two films are not especially similar—or rather, Ritchie’s fly-on-the-wall approach looks a bit like an Adam McKay political dramedy with the fussiness and digressions cut out. Scenes posses the rhythm of a hustling political operation but never overstay their welcome. And Redford and the movie both get a little funnier, a little more frayed, as the story progresses, until the one-two punch of clamor and quiet that Ritchie sets up in his final scene—one for the ages. It sets a gold standard for political movies—historical, satirical, or somewhere in between—that echo beyond their initial release.

Availability: The Candidate is available to rent or purchase from many of the major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library.


Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!