From Sara Black McCulloch’s “The Truth Hurts: On The Candidate, All the President’s Men, The Post and Vice“: “The Candidate [is] a politically inclined Pygmalion tale that [says] you eventually have to become the role that you’re playing. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) taps environmental lawyer Bill McKay (Robert Redford) to run as the Democratic opposition to U.S. Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). It’s a Faustian bargain with a twist: McKay is guaranteed to lose, but can still run to further promote his environmental work.
“[But] it doesn’t take too long until McKay is inducted into the entire spectacle of campaigning. His message is slowly tweaked, he gets a makeover, and his demeanor becomes less off-the-cuff and more camera-ready. What you slowly start to notice, however, is the whirr of machinery as he gains popularity. It takes a lot of equipment to make a man and spread his message: the invasive cameras, superimposed TV screens, falling boom mics, and the short bursts of flashing bulb lights. We see him less in person, so to speak, and more through the lens of a camera or on a TV screen. We’re increasingly bombarded with his public image.
“If Lucas is spinning an unyielding gossamer system, then McKay is trapped in it. And it’s one preoccupied with form rather than content. It’s a lesson that McKay will eventually learn the hard way at the end of the film, when he actually wins. We see a dumbstruck McKay look to Lucas and ask ‘What now?’ — only to be drowned out by a mob of friends, family, and supporters. But even before that moment, McKay’s public mask had begun to crack; in moments when he can’t keep up with the other version of himself, he’ll goof off or rebel in private.
“In one scene, he breaks character while rehearsing a speech: ‘Vote once, vote twice for Bill McKay…you middle-class honkies,’ he jests as he double-peace signs like Nixon. The most telling breakdown of all is during the well-known ‘laughing scene,’ wherein a falling boom mic leads to an uncontrollable fit of laughter from McKay. After that, he corpses through the taping of his speech as a frustrated producer yells ‘I fail to see the humor!’
“But the irony isn’t lost on McKay: His message is now more generic, the production value has gone up, and he’s delivering his speech during a Rolex-sponsored segment. He’s a sellout and, while his campaign was initially framed as grassroots—with one camera shooting him gonzo-style—it’s now become bigger than he is. Even if he doesn’t believe what he’s putting out there, too many people are now invested in it, both literally and figuratively. He no longer answers only to himself.”