Reporter's Notebook

Political Theater
Show Description +

Megan Garber leads an ongoing reader discussion about some of the most influential and entertaining films about elections. To have your views included, please drop us a note:

Show 11 Newer Notes

The Candidate Explores the Political Spectacle

J.S.—a reader who first voted in 1976 and has seen The Candidate, for the record, “four or five times”—writes in with a really smart answer to my question about the movie and its status as satire:

The Candidate is the story of the education of a novice politician. It presents us with various individual lessons he learns, the overall gist of which is that it’s not enough actually to be an attractive, smart young idealist; you need to become “the attractive, smart young idealist,” i.e. a certain media type that voters will recognize as such. The satirical point, you might say, is that creating even a true image takes careful crafting, and that this process has an undertow—the crafting itself induces cynicism, thus making the image at least a bit less true.

But “satire” is just a label we put on all this after the fact. As you say, the bludgeoning political satires of the ’90s like Wag the Dog have somewhat spoiled the term. The Candidate is a comedy based on close observation of what actually happens in political campaigns. Through the eyes of the politician-in-training, we learn, for instance, how it doesn’t just matter what you say during a TV interview, but that you remember not to look up, because on camera that makes you look stupid. And that the powers of incumbency include being able to overwhelm a smart analysis, say of the causes of brushfires, with spectacle: swooping in by helicopter, deus ex machina, to announce that you’ve just secured the President’s promise of disaster relief. And that being effective means staying on message, which means repeating the same formulaic lines until they start to sound like random nonsense even in your own head.

You might say that this is the “wagging the dog” that happens in real life: the craftedness, the staging, gradually become the point, instead of merely a means to get the point across.

My own view, though, is that the film overstates this, hence the ending [embedded above] rings a bit false. There’s no reason that Bill McKay, upon winning, would be so completely at a loss, or that we should believe he will likely do little or no good in the Senate. If we’re to believe he’s the smart, decent person that made it plausible to run him in the first place, then there’s no reason to suppose he couldn’t be a kind of Paul Wellstone or Russ Feingold. Senators like those have had to run campaigns too, using many of same techniques and making many of the same compromises as McKay and his handlers, and yet the Republic has benefited greatly from them.

I really like that idea: that the satire here, to the extent that there is satire to be found, comes down to the interplay between person and persona—and between the candidate as a human and the candidate as a self-contained spectacle. One of the things that struck me while I was watching The Candidate was how much the movie made of the technologies that helped to encourage that dynamic: the whirring film reels, the crackling TV screens, the popping flash bulbs. These machines of political engagement carried with them a certain sense of menace. They were not merely omnipresent, but physically omnipresent: They were loud and leering and looming. They were everywhere.

Warner Bros. / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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?

Warner Bros. / Refat / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The people have spoken. For our inaugural installment of Political Theater, our new reader series, we’ll be watching … The Candidate, the 1972 Robert Redford comedy-satire that received, by far, the largest number of your votes. (Thanks to everyone who cast their ballots!) I haven’t seen the movie before, so I’ll be watching it for the first time, along with fellow Atlantic staffers, this coming week—and I hope you’ll join us!

Here’s more on The Candidate:

Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a political election specialist, must find a Democratic candidate to oppose California U.S. Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), a popular Republican. With no big-name Democrat eager to enter the unwinnable race, Lucas seeks out Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the idealistic, charismatic son of former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas).

Lucas gives McKay a proposition: since Jarmon cannot lose and the race is already decided, McKay is free to campaign saying exactly what he wants. McKay accepts in order to have the chance to spread his values, and hits the trail. With no serious Democratic opposition, McKay cruises to the nomination on his name alone.

No spoilers, but it looks like, from there … the plot thickens. Here’s the original trailer:

We’ll be watching The Candidate on Wednesday, 9/21, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join us! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about the movie then. (The Candidate is available for free on Amazon Prime, and for $2-$3 on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.) Watch it whenever is good for you, though, and join in the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber), or via an email to I’ll be thinking about it throughout the week.

I’m looking forward to reveling in the wonders of ’70s-era political satire—and to hearing your thoughts about it!

Jim Young / Reuters

I love Dave—not just because it’s a thoroughly charming comedy, and not just because it’s a perfect relic of the early ’90s, shoulder pads and all, but also because it’s a whimsical fairy tale about … the behind-the-scenes workings of the U.S. executive branch. It goes like this: Dave Kovic, owner of a temp agency in Georgetown, happens to look almost exactly like President Bill Mitchell—so much so that, in his spare time, he moonlights at parties and car-dealership openings as “the president.” But when the real Bill Mitchell has a stroke that leaves him in a coma, Dave, under the direction of two scheming West Wing advisers, steps in so that the Mitchell administration can continue despite its lack of Mitchell himself.

I know that doesn’t sound like much of a fairy tale, but here’s the real magic: Dave, the Regular Guy, ends up being a better president—more practical, more ethical, more compassionate, more fun—than the person the American public had actually elected to office. Dave is Cinderella, basically, only with a bulletproof limo instead of a bedazzled pumpkin.

And that’s why I love it so much: Dave is a fictional story about Americans’ extremely non-fictional tendency to idealize the ordinariness of our leaders. It is a movie for the age of “the president I’d want to have a beer with.” This perfect relic of 1993 feels fresh and urgently relevant during the current presidential campaign.

So, with that in mind: We’re going to watch Dave again! And, while we’re at it, we’re going to watch other political movies, too!

Every week or so, starting in September, we’ll be getting together—the “we” being myself, other Atlantic folk, and, I hope, you—to watch, and discuss, a particular political movie. And the films we watch (except for Dave, which pretty much nominates itself) will depend on you. The American President? All the President’s Men? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde? They’re all on the table. In the form here, let us know which movies you’d most like to watch (and, for extra credit, why you’d like to watch them). We’ll use your ideas to put together a roster of movies that we’ll talk about, in Notes, over the months (yes, it’s still months) leading up to the election. We’re thinking of it as a way both to embrace and to escape the day-to-day doings of this long-running campaign season—’90s-tastic shoulder pads optional.