40 Years Later, Is The Candidate Still Satire?

Warner Bros. / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This week, for our inaugural Political Theater conversation, Atlantic staffers and I watched your most-requested movie: The Candidate, the 1972 dark comedy starring Robert Redford. And many of us left our screening … a little confused, actually! We had gone into the movie expecting it to be, as it been described, a “satirical comedy-drama”; I’d been imagining it, basically, as The Ides of March but with wider lapels.

The consensus among our watching party, though, seemed to be that it was difficult to tell how, exactly, the movie was working as satire. Was the crux of the argument that Redford’s character—Bill McKay—was selected to run for Senate almost entirely because of his good looks and, secondarily, nepotism? Was it that he had, in the end, sold out his ideals simply to gain political power? Was it the broader, more tragic notion of how powerless the individual person can be against the lurching machinery of party politics?

Those are all part of the story, definitely—and you could make a good case for each. For me, though, none of them came through terribly strongly, as messages or takeaways or, yep, evidence of satire. McKay, after all, wasn’t that great of a guy at the beginning; for my money, he didn’t turn into that bad of a guy by the end. He sold out, a little, definitely … not that much? And all that in addition to the fact—and this was my greatest source of confusion—that none of the stakes in this election ever seemed that high.

And maybe, you could say, that is the crux of The Candidate’s satire! Here, after all, are politicians asking for power over major and sometimes life-and-death issues in people’s lives (in this case, school busing, women’s reproductive rights, crime, the environment, etc.); and here are those politicians, at the same time, blissfully—cynically—able to treat those things merely as “issues.” Maybe the point here is the ironic privilege of the politician. If so, of course, that would make The Candidate, as many of you pointed out in nominating the movie for discussion in the first place, urgently relevant today. But I didn’t come away, actually, thinking that the people/politician disconnect was the obvious point of the movie. It was too subtle for that. Possibly too nuanced.

So I guess my main question coming out of The Candidate—one I hope you’ll weigh in on—is: Have movies changed, or have people’s perceptions of politics?

Those aren’t mutually exclusive, certainly. But either way they make The Candidate revealing. It could simply be, after all—this is the argument for movies having changed—that I missed the satire because I’ve simply become desensitized to cinematic subtlety. The ’90s, and that decade’s unprecedentedly violent collisions of politics and entertainment, had their way with us all; maybe, in the wake of Wag the Dog and Primary Colors and even (the absurdist, glorious) Canadian Bacon, I simply expect my satire to be stridently un-subtle. Maybe it’s simply the case that nuanced satire no longer scans, to my Starr Report-addled brain, as “satire” at all.

The other possibility—and, again, the two aren’t necessarily at odds with each other—is that Americans’ perception of politics, in the wake of waters Gate and White, has simply become more cynical in the years since 1972. I pretty much take it for granted, today, that to be a retail politician will require—implicitly—some degree of selling out; I take it for granted, too, that politics and spectacle are, at this point, pretty much inextricable from each other. And in an age that finds conspiracy theories swirling, exhaust-like, around pretty much any major-party national candidate who puts herself forward for candidacy—in an age whose current “political satire” so often culminates in unpunished murder—McKay’s soft-sellout scans to me as … not much of a sellout at all.

Could the difference simply be that people of previous generations, in the post-1968 and pre-Watergate years, simply expected more—and, in another way, less—of their politicians? Very possibly. Here, after all, is the New York Times’s review of the movie, written by Vincent Canby and published in June of 1972:

There is something perverse and puritanical in the way many liberal Americans regard the political system. If a candidate wants to win, he must be suspect. Ambition in itself is bad. Like athlete’s foot, it’s not a sin, but it is unseemly. We put great store by the kind of modesty that insures defeat and that, only then, is revealed to be a form of arrogance. The best man should lose, or he isn’t the best man. This is the Catch-22 of American politics.

We all know that men who run for public office hoping only to improve the tone of the campaign, to raise the real issues, usually fail—and look terrible on television, which may be even worse. We suspect that only winning counts, yet we also fondly believe—since we’ve seen it demonstrated often enough—that the system is so corrupt that no good man can win without either being hopelessly corrupted or turned into a bewildered cipher.

First of all: Like athlete’s foot, it’s not a sin, but it is unseemly. From one writer to another: RESPECT. What a great line.

Second of all, though, it’s noteworthy that these tensions are simultaneously ones that we still discuss today … and, also, that seem distinctly antiquated. My sense is that the American public, writ large, has largely given up even on the notion of modesty in politicians. And that we have also given up, largely, on the notion of idealism—particularly now, as the public anticipates the post-Obama years. A lot of us now simply assume, I think, that an election is a pragmatic choice between two not-terribly-appealing options. And that corruption is simply part of the game—a part, indeed, that we, the public, are complicit in. In the age of social media, after all, we are all part of the partisanship that we are so fond of bemoaning. Candidates are what they are because that’s what we, directly and indirectly, ask them to be.

The Candidate anticipates all that. It emphasizes cameras and flashbulbs and TV screens; it explores the performativity of politics. And that’s what makes it feel—satire or not—worthy of watching today. One reader, who first voted in 1980, explained that the movie is “Timeless, still relevant. Redford’s line after his victory—‘What do we do now?’—sums up the political process as well today as in 1969.”

Another, who first voted in 1960, said that it “shows the candidate as we don’t see him/her in all the media and what campaigning itself can do to the one running for office.”

Another (first vote 1978): “About a guy who doesn’t want to run, and does anyway...resonates today.”

Another (1972): “Still relevant, subtle, entertaining, skewers hypocrisy of both parties.”

Another (also 1972): “Asks the most important question in the 2016 race (regardless of the ultimate winner)—‘What happens now?’”

Another (1968): “Showcases the absurdity of the political process.”

It definitely does. My main question is: How does it do that showcasing? And what can we learn from comparing the 1972 notion of political satire to the 2016 version? I’ll keep thinking and, meanwhile, I’d love your thoughts; send them, please, to hello@theatlantic.com.