If Posse was intended as a cynical editorial on the politically-turbulent 1970s, it never quite reaches that goal. Its message is ultimately muted, but there are still pleasures along the way. Douglas and company nicely convey that political strategies have changed little over the last 120 years. Nightingale's campaign speeches consist of vague promises like being tough on crime. He fights with a local newspaper editor played by James Stacey. He employs his own photographer to make sure that no photo opportunities are missed (even when he poses solemnly after burying one of his posse). Nightingale even travels in a luxurious train car, courtesy of the railroad--it's no coincidence that his populist rhetoric stresses the importance of railroads in building the country's future.
An unnecessary death mars what could have been one of cinema's all-time great endings--but it's still very good. In the end, Posse is a satisfying, offbeat portrait of political ambition and its consequences.
The campaign gets off to a promising start, with the press embracing McKay's frank views. But when his message fails to click with the public, his campaign team shifts to vague rhetoric and (amusingly) empty TV spots that capitalize on the candidate's looks while saying nothing of substance. McKay starts to rise in the polls and suddenly seems capable of unseating his three-term incumbent opponent.
To his credit, Ritchie provides an absorbing insider look at the campaign trail, from the musty hallways of the hotels to the camera crew following the candidate around, hoping for a snippet that can be used in a TV spot. His use of handheld cameras is effective at first, but quickly grows weary.
Despite its shortcomings, The Candidate was a boxoffice hit. Redford was on the verge of superstar status and the film was certainly timely (it was released during the 1972 Presidential primaries). However, if you're seeking an original political picture from the 1970s, then I recommend you ride along with Kirk Douglas's Posse.