Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Price of Political Ambition in "Posse" and "The Candidate"

This month's focus on politics in movies continues with two films from the 1970s, each a labor of love for its star: Posse and The Candidate.

Kirk Douglas produced, directed, and starred in Posse, an ambitious political Western about Texas marshal Howard Nightingale, a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Nightingale has built his campaign around capturing the notorious railroad-robbing outlaw Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern). Unfortunately, with the election approaching quickly, Strawhorn's capture has proven difficult--even for Nightengale's posse of six highly-paid professionals. However, when a payoff reveals Strawhorn's whereabouts, Nightingale and his posse burn down the barn containing Strawhorn's men and the $40,000 loot obtained from their latest robbery. To the marshal's extreme displeasure, Strawhorn manages to escape...though not for long.

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.

Yet, while Nightingale's future looks promising, the same can't be said for his posse. Their boss proudly informs the gunmen that he has secured them jobs as security guards for the railroad for $100 a month. Their response: We make more than that now. When a Native American member of the posse notes that the railroad doesn't hire Indians, Douglas replies with an offhand: "We'll have to work that out." Yes, trouble is brewing within the ranks of the posse.

Kirk Douglas directs with a sure hand, though at the expense of fleshing out what really makes Nightingale tick. Bruce Dern fares much better as the charming and crafty Strawhorn. Remarkably restrained, it may be my favorite Dern performance.

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 same theme gets a very different treatment in The Candidate, Robert Redford's inconsistent tale of a young California lawyer's rise from small-time crusader to the U.S. Senate. Redford stars as Bill McKay, the son of a popular former governor, who has no political aspirations--until an astute campaign manager (wonderfully played by Peter Boyle) seeks him out. McKay is reluctant to agree to run for office. He wants a guarantee that he can "say what I want, do what I want, go where I please." Boyle's character agrees, noting that it means McKay will lose the election.

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.

It's easy to see what Redford and director Michael Ritchie wanted to do with The Candidate. Three years earlier, they had teamed for Downhill Racer, a sharp portrait of an inconsiderate human being who also happened to be a great skier. Unfortunately, the lead character in The Candidate simply lacks interest. We should feel something when McKay realizes--quite belatedly--that he has sold out. Instead, it means little because we never really got to know McKay in the first place. He is a bland enigma at the start of the film and remains so at the end.

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.


  1. Interesting stuff, I like it. A Robert Redford fan, I am.

  2. Neither of these films have ever been seen by me. Robert Redford usually does well in roles like the one you describe in The Candidate, so I'm surprised it wasn't better.

  3. Rick, like you I am lukewarm about "The Candidate." I have never seen "The Posse" but find the concept of a politically themed Western intriguing. It was fascinating to see these two films profiled together. Well done!