I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #29, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
As political as this column can sometimes get, one type of movie that I tend to hate is anything about Washington insiders and the corruption of the American Dream. A fine topic for personal meditation, but usually a lousy one for the movies. Why? Because corrupt Washington insiders are boring by necessity. Being boring is how they manage to get away with it. Stories of political manipulations that do get exciting always focus on the individual and have very simplistic messages; sometimes powerful people are greedy, and that’s a bad thing.
See how uninteresting that is when it’s laid out? There is a real problem in Hollywood’s ability to confront the systemic corruption in politics (probably because they’re also wrapped up in campaign financing, but that’s beside the point). The best ones are either about outsiders piecing together the fallout (All the President’s Men) or they just get straight to the sexy punching (Clear and Present Danger). But anything that directly involves politicians, aides, whoever, is usually so full of platitudes that the dialogue is hardly recognizable as legitimate human interaction (Lions for Lambs), or it’s content to retread well-worn territory like it’s the first to make these accusations (The Ides of March).
It’s here that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands apart from pretty much every other movie about mainstream politics. The message here isn’t so simple as “Some individuals are bad” or “The whole barrel is rotten.”
It’s saying that there’s always a choice, even when things are at their most desperate.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the story of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), who is chosen by the governor of an unnamed state to replace a senator who has just recently died. Smith is chosen not for his experience, but for is complete lack of it. There’s a great deal of corruption in this state, and they want somebody who will either play ball or won’t ever catch on. Smith isn’t exactly naive, but he’s so enthusiastic about the nation’s history and values that the truth of the matter would never have occurred to him if he hadn’t been directly confronted with it. They turn him from patsy to fall-guy in no time, but it turns out that the idealism that made him so cooperative also makes him the wrong dude to screw with.
When Smith stumbles on plans for a dam that would a) occupy the same land as his proposed boys’ camp, and b) is essentially a giant graft scheme, he is shattered. Not just that he discovered the presence of corruption, but that his attempts to correct it are thwarted, men he respected are in fact tainted, and he begins to believe that it was all just a lie.
The time has come to make a choice: is he going to stand up for what he knows is right, or is he going to settle for what everyone tells him is possible?
On the surface, Smith may seem like too convenient of a protagonist. He’s smart, eager, handsome, and truly values the best parts of American history. But this being the Frank Capra fable that it is, the nature of his character is both believable and necessary. After all, he was chosen for his youth and naivete, and this makes the ordeal they subject him to all the more difficult to watch. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody.
More to the point, though, this isn’t just about Smith. His secretary Ms. Saunders (played hilariously by Jean Arthur) has been in Washington so long that her jokes about how rotten it is have become less of a critique and more of a coping mechanism. The senior senator from Smith’s state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), is a consummate insider who hasn’t completely lost touch with his core values – though unfortunately, being in politics so long has given him a nasty self-preservation instinct. Smith’s story reminds both of them of why they came to Washington in the first place, but not without a fight.
What’s most interesting about Smith is that he’s not apolitical and he’s not dumb. He cares about issues and he values democracy, but what surprises him is that, at this level, these things don’t seem to matter.
Frank Capra practically invented the American fable, with movies that highlight the effect that one person can have when they make the right decision under extraordinary circumstances. Senator Paine was once in Smith’s shoes, but he decided to play along when the time came, though at the time it was likely with the best intentions and for the right reasons. And in true Capra form, Smith inspires Saunders and Paine to perform their own acts of bravery.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has remained politically relevant because, while it concerns the American government, its themes are universal.
We see how how power can corrupt a person, and how it can make a good person lose hope of ever combating it. It shows how money and influence have infiltrated our government, not just that it has. Someone like Smith isn’t wrong for believing in the system; we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. And he isn’t wrong for giving up hope when it looks like he will fail. When he filibusters, he doesn’t try to convince the senators, he tries to convince the people, true to his grassroots origins, and that’s where the difference is made. Pretty strong message for such a charming little flick (and it may not be surprising that some 1939 audiences found it treasonous).
Comments: Satire is the wrong word for one of Frank Capra’s several masterpieces. It’s funny, it’s intelligent, it’s a worthwhile commentary on politics, and all of that still holds up after almost 70 years.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. We’ll see about other Capra movies, but this one for sure. Rarely do so many people who don’t watch movies know and love this one.
Inspired: “Of course,” you’ll say, but I felt a little bit of Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader in the final showdown between Smith and Paine.
Next Week: #28 Apocalypse Now
Last Week: #30 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
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