The Best Man Review
One can trace the perceived mood and mindset of American film in the twentieth century, and the country as a whole to some extent, through the shifting tone of Hollywood movies about politics. If you go back to the first full decade of talking pictures, the 1930s, there's idealism and emphasis on morals and ethics. Even then the political system is presented as a corrupting venue for the rich and powerful, but it's nonetheless advertised as being still possible to infiltrate with good, honest people who seek to carry out the best interests of the collective nation. Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington famously stirs up emotion and hope in the name of how we'd like for it to be, regardless of how it really is or was. This approach might be simplistic or it could parallel the mindset of the time prior to World War II. Other pictures of the era like Gabriel Over the White House or a pair about Abraham Lincoln - Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois - again reinforce the idea that leaders ultimately are looking out for the common man.
Slowly, but surely, that mindset changed in Hollywood. Even as the studio system continued and the Production Code remained in place, films on politics treated their subjects with less reverence, while still mostly avoiding outright contempt. The 1949 Best Picture winner All the King's Men let its protagonist, a charismatic and power hungry politician who loses all restraint, grow into his detestability, and Willy Stark devolves into the mire of corruption gracelessly. By the 1950s, politics seemed to hold minimal sway for audiences and the Eisenhower years featured little more than John Ford's The Last Hurrah, a middling throwback starring Spencer Tracy as a long-serving mayor running his final campaign. But the thirst for politics was rekindled the following decade, when the United States was awakened by a closely fought election between Kennedy and Nixon. The films followed with more frequency than perhaps ever before and also seemed to possess an urge for questioning the integrity of the beast.
Both Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent in 1962 and the 1964 film The Best Man feature Henry Fonda, as presidential a movie star as there's ever been, playing prominent men entangled in politics and struggling to maintain their goodness of heart and reputation through potential scandal. That the films are two of the better about American politics ever made is somewhat inconsequential, but, more importantly, the tone of the pictures is strangely similar, with both contrasting sharply against '30s films like Capra's. The Fonda pictures occupy the position of budding cynicism and increased disillusionment by the average voter. John Frankenheimer's paranoia thrillers and their progeny of the 1970s also fit neatly in this subcategory. Total conspiracy-laden madness or apathetic jadedness would hit later on in the form of 1972's The Candidate, Altman's Nashville, and even Oliver Stone's JFK, but the two films with Fonda show an important shift into the distrust of the institutional system.
Like Advise and Consent, The Best Man was an adaptation, with the former beginning life as a novel and the latter coming from Gore Vidal's 1960 stage play. The 1964 film version, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner after passing through the unlikely hands of Frank Capra at one point, essentially mirrors the play, including Lee Tracy reprising his role as the dying ex-president, but with two key differences. For one, the political climate in 1964 was not the same as it had been just an election earlier. Secondly, the more abrasive of the two presidential candidates, Joe Cantwell, was injected with the youth of Cliff Robertson in the film when he'd been played by the somewhat older Frank Lovejoy on the stage. This places Robertson, who'd actually played John F. Kennedy in the previous year's PT-109, as conjuring thoughts of Kennedy instead of just Vidal's main inspiration of Nixon. As William Russell, Henry Fonda was pure Adlai Stevenson, the cerebral and utterly decent Democrat who was twice defeated by Dwight Eisenhower for the presidency in the 1950s.
This all may seem like a bit too much of a history lesson, but the always politically interested Vidal was undoubtedly intending more than just entertainment with his play. He clearly had something to say about American politics and the easy manipulation of the voter. Indeed, The Best Man's biggest liability is that I'm not sure it really transcends its subject. I don't know how well the film would play for someone either uninterested in politics as a whole or not at least somewhat familiar with the American election process, which has thankfully evolved a shade in the past forty plus years. The movie scrapes the asphalt of how ugly the campaign can get and does so in a very short time period, taking place during a hectic party convention intended to determine who the presidential nominee will be for the unnamed party.
Vidal also stacks the deck pretty blatantly, which is another of the film's more glaring flaws. Not only is it the revered Fonda playing man of integrity Russell, but Robertson's Cantwell is so incredibly bitter, so unsatisfying that the audience never once hopes for him to succeed. Cantwell's inner ugliness can be glimpsed from the get-go. By contrast, Russell and his given indiscretions of a nervous breakdown and alleged philandering seem almost sugarcoated. Both of these types of problems would, of course, later sink candidates in presidential elections, but it's played here rather sympathetically. The Russell character could be both crazy and an inveterate womaniser and I'd probably still vote for him over these other clowns.
None of this seems to be Vidal's central concern, though. His one and only interest, and that's not to say it's a bad one, lies with the idea of the best candidate becoming so broken down over the process so as to lose for lack of defending himself in the same cutthroat manner as his opponent. The smallish plot concerns this very proposition, wherein both Russell and Cantwell obtain information detrimental to the other in the process of trying to gather enough delegates for the nomination. Vidal concedes that whichever candidate gets the negative revelation against him will obviously lose, thus placing zero trust in the delegation to wade through the muck. The titular best man, thus, cannot and will not win unless he too compromises his own ideals.
Under a modicum of scrutiny, this type of dreamy fantasia might work. The real problem is that politics in its most ideal form shouldn't concern the candidates at all, but instead be about issues and results. The takehome message here is (spoiler) that Russell is the better man because he refused to go against his own beliefs even if it meant losing the election. But Vidal's smugness in this result seems to forget that if politicians like Russell are unwilling to do what it takes to win then it's really the electorate that suffers. It's great that Russell keeps his dignity, but the bigger picture requires something closer to what Tracy's dying ex-president keeps hammering home - a certain degree of shrewdness. The film itself at least engenders these types of discussions even today, which is always a good thing. Those who are slightly obsessed with politics should be its target audience, but they're also the ones who will probably hold it to the closest scrutiny. Everyone else may enjoy the smart writing and gripping pace, despite the film also being overly simplistic and grossly dated at this point.
The R2 PAL release from Optimum is typical of the label's handiwork. It's non-anamorphic and the disc is single-layered. Presented in 1.66:1, the transfer is progressive and basic, if passable. There are mild instances of white speckles throughout, but minimal damage otherwise. Contrast is okay, though unimpressive, and sharpness is similar. This release is more than fine for those simply wanting to own the film, especially since it's still unreleased in R1. However, I feel confident that it can look somewhat better with a little more care involved and a little less grain.
Audio is given an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. It's somewhat low in volume, adequate otherwise. No major instances of hisses or pops were audible. Dialogue is still easily heard, which is especially good since there aren't any subtitles. I harp on this over and over, but subtitles should be standard and there's simply no good excuse for their exclusion.
Only a trailer has been included in the extra features department, though I did enjoy the nifty cover art.