"The Candidate" (1972)
Forget the Sundance Kid and Bob Woodward, Robert Redford’s turn as would-be Senator Bill McKay is possibly his greatest role. It’s certainly his least narcissistic and most spiritually ugly turn - as the son of a popular former governor, McKay is gradually unraveled and exposed to be as cosmetic as his dashing side-burns; a fate only compounded by winning the damn election. Whatever timid political convictions the character is depicted as possessing are steamrolled in favor of refashioning the man into a photogenic tabula rasa, a bespoke ‘man of the people’ grown like Ellen Ripley in a lab (a potential voter simply remarks, “Handsome is as handsome does”) who’s able to coast on a roster of meaningless platitudes right into public office. Not so much worn down by the political machine as ground by it into a fine patty, “The Candidate” is ostensibly a comedy from the man who would go on to direct “Fletch,” with Michael Ritchie’s handheld deadpan style sly, impressive and vaguely horrifying, especially with Peter Boyle hovering over McKay as a scruple-free campaign manager. The indignities depicted in the film (gross self-censorship, vile manipulation of advertisements that encourage voters to choose a candidate “the way they choose a detergent”) are of course laughably meek by the standards of the dubious chicanery that abounds in political campaigns today, but McKay’s ticket, run on the promise of restoring “hope and faith in government,” has obvious timeless implications beyond its early 1970s setting. Its famous last line (the clueless inquiry: “What do we do now?”) is a touch didactic and McKay’s descent perhaps now an overly familiar one, but when his father eventually slaps his tousle-haired sprog on the shoulder and chuckles, “Son, you’re a politician!” the remark rattles through the rest of the film like a death sentence. [A-]
"The Contender" (2000)
Laine Hanson is about to become Vice President, but the headhunters are out in full force. It’s knives out for any female candidate, argues writer-director Rod Lurie, who then sets up a Chinese finger trap of a plot device, revealing Hanson’s possible participation in a collegiate orgy that sends the media into a tizzy. Through it all, Joan Allen’s Hanson perseveres, refusing to kowtow to her tormentors, which include an appropriately slimy congressman played by Gary Oldman, and pursues the office despite facing opposition from one side, and Puritanical unease from the other. “The Contender” has a talented cast (Jeff Bridges is a delight as a carefree Commander In Chief), but a film that tackles material this loaded shouldn’t cower in its final act to naked principle over truth, obscuring the issue with a last minute reveal that sours the entire film and degrades the experience to one fascinated by politics, but utterly oblivious to sexual matters. When it comes time to make a statement, the most forceful stand this meek film takes is Sam Elliot memorably growling, “The one thing the American people won’t stand… is a Vice President with a mouthful of COCK.” [C]
As a now-charmingly naïve take on politics, Ivan Reitman‘s “Dave” is both watchable and utterly, hopelessly dumb. Kevin Kline stars as the hardline conservative President Bill Mitchell, who lapses into a coma only to be replaced by lookalike insurance agent Dave Kovic. To swallow “Dave,” you have to accept that this was the Clinton Era, where our Commander In Chief had serious Dude Appeal, a status that obscured the politics at play. As such, Kovic is much looser, funnier and, surprise, quite liberal, eschewing his predecessor’s stance and proving to be more pro-union and anti-big business. The Capra-fueled optimism mostly has its heart in the right place, and Kline is charming in a dual role, but the film laughably turns the job of President into an opportunity to showcase late-night policy sessions, with Charles Grodin acting as the entire cabinet, and moments where Kovic slashes massive public relations budgets with a smile and a wink. Its glib, what-if politics, cement the Gary Ross-penned script as from another era, or more accurately, highly outdated. [C+]
"The Distinguished Gentlemen" (1992)
Oh, Eddie Murphy of the 80s and 90s. We miss you. While “The Distinguished Gentleman” isn’t a great film by any stretch, it is a great example of the energy and creativity that Murphy once had. Not only does he give a terrific comedic performance, but Murphy actually flexes some decent dramatic chops that are rarely seen from him.
The film focuses on a Florida con man, Thomas Jefferson Johnson (Murphy), who uses the death of an incumbent candidate with a similar name to snag a seat in Congress. (The way in which he pulls it off and the depiction of voting trends is actually quite brilliant.) Why would he want to be a Congressman? Like one of his crew says: “That’s where the money is.” He and his band of criminals descend on Washington and quickly realize that they are way out of their league when it comes to pulling cons. Johnson gets swept up in the action, led by Dick Dodge (Lane Smith), until he realizes that, wait, he has a conscience after all. It’s when he tries to do the right thing and protect his citizens that he sees how absurd the political process actually is. As a loose re-telling of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the movie doesn’t exactly compare, full of flaws as it is. But it does manage to at least marginally represent the shady dealings that certainly take place in Washington and, if nothing else, it’s really damn funny. [B-]