Does It Hold Up: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Quite often, movies, books, music, television shows, and other pieces of pop culture serve as a reflection of the time when they were made. Sometimes they are very much rooted in that time, and no longer feel relevant in the decades that follow. Occasionally, though, they maintain every ounce of the power they were infused with when they were first created, and in a way, they become timeless. These are the pieces of art that endure, that hold up. The purpose of this column is to look at the pop culture of the past, and determine if it does indeed hold up.

It was the fall of 1939.  The United States was not yet in World War II, but it was still under the sway of The Great Depression which had started a decade earlier.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his second term as President, having taken the office with a populist agenda to bring work back to Americans and to take on the institutions deemed by the populace to be at the cause of the Depression.  Looking over the political rhetoric of FDR, we find words against the corruption of big business, for the spirit of individualism and cooperation, and inspiring the nation to have the courage to see through the dark times of economic and then military turmoil.  It was in this atmosphere, almost four-score years ago, that Frank Capra directed one of the seminal pieces of American cinema, and one of the most allegorically patriotic films of all time.

So as we near the end of yet another political election season, where the ghost of FDR has been resurrected by the left and exorcised by the right, I thought it would be a good time to re-watch the seminal piece of film history, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  When the movie was first released, it was deemed by some to be anti-American — communist even — because of how it portrays the American political system.  Over the years, it has been seen in other ways: as a whistleblower to the influence of business in politics, or as an allegory for how one man (emphasis on man) whose eyes are open can make a difference in our democracy.  But how would it seem now, in our era of low approval ratings for the Congress?  How does a story of political corruption seem to us now — is it quaint, is it prescient, or is it just humdrum?

The film begins with corruption in politics, and it ends with the good guys having won a battle.  In an unnamed state, a weak -willed governor, who is being controlled by business man Jim Taylor, has to appoint new Senator for one who has recently passed away.  Consulting with the state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains), the decision is made to nominate Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart in a breakout role), a local Boy Rangers leader who has the goodwill of the community behind him — and who has a naivete about politics that Taylor believes will make him malleable to the man’s political will, which includes passing a bill that would financially benefit him.  Smith, humbled and full of wide-eyed wonder, is lead to Washington by Paine, who had been his father’s best friend in their crusade for lost causes.  The first thing Smith does when he gets to the Capital is to tour the sites like the good American he is, taking in the history and mythology, the morality and the legendary in one very patriotic montage.

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For a modern viewer, this montage can be a little hard to watch.  At least it was for me, given the cynicism that has taken root in me, and in other Americans, whether it be because of the Vietnam-Nixon era, or the 9/11-Bush era.  For us, we see these images that we were taught as children to venerate as representations of the American ideal, and we place them alongside what we have learned about the follies and real horrors committed by this country in a distorted conceit of these ideals.  At the height of the tension in the George W. Bush era, those who questioned the government, what had supposedly been the role of the people, were labeled unpatriotic, and the patriotic images from the montage were wrapped around the “true believers”, i.e. those who supported the President.  Seeing these images in the montage leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

And yet, what is interesting is that the movie supplies figures of identification for viewers like me.  Smith is the naive country boy who comes into Washington thinking he can be part of this grand ideal, working to help his country and the people back home that he cares about.  For those of us viewers who are perhaps not as warm to the government as he, we can find it hard to identify with him.  But Capra considered this, and with the writers provided us with two supporting characters who have their own heroic character arcs.  Clarissa Saunders (played by Jean Arthur in a command leading actress role), Smith’s initially very reluctant secretary, and Diz Moore, from the press, begin the film as cynics, as the type of people who have been around politicians for so long that they have seen the machinations of power, the deals made to get things done, and have been so corrupted by these experiences that they use humor to mask their disillusionment with government.  But these are characters that the cynic viewers can latch on to, and experience the narrative and Smith’s journey through.

Smith’s journey is structured as a morality tale, as a hero’s quest, and as an allegory for how politics is but ought to be.  Played beautifully by Stewart, who’s ability to enact the emotions required to show the arc of the character truly make the film, Smith soon learns about the corruption at the heart of Paine’s Senate position, and how Taylor is pulling the strings on not only Paine, but his entire home state.  The depression is palatable in Smith’s reaction, as he decides to give up and slink off into the darkness of obscurity.

But he doesn’t go into that darkness alone.  In fact, he goes to the Lincoln Memorial, which provides the perfect atmosphere environment to have his patriotism, his passion to live by and enliven American ideals, reinvigorated by the cynic Saunders.  It is at this point that we realize that naive Smith has rekindled this passion in the cynic, has helped her come out of the dark tunnel, as he described it, and the movie is now saying that it is possible to change the country — at least one cynic at a time.  But the movie doesn’t stop there.  Rekindled, Smith returns to Senate to face expulsion charges, and instead takes command of the floor with a filibuster as he demands that the people of his state hear from him the truth about the Taylor political machine.

Now, it is odd, in this day and age, to hear of a filibuster as being lauded.  But this movie deems a filibuster to be a spectacle, worthy of front page, headline news.  A news reporter eloquently describes it as a shining example of democracy in action, of the power of the freedom of speech where one man can command a government’s attention.  Nowadays, filibusters have become more of a dirty word, associated more with obstructionist tactics than of demonstrating the power of one man or woman to draw attention to corruption.  And yet, the way the filibuster is used in the movie is to exemplify the power of one man to control the discourse, to have his say, and ultimately to be vindicated because his voice is heard.  What results is some of the most moving — and yet also most patriotic — political rhetoric ever committed to film.

 His voice wins against the corrupting influence of Taylor, who has used his control of the press to distort Smith’s words and deeds.  His voice seemingly clips the strings that for decades had tied Paine to Taylor.  And in terms of the viewing experience of the film, his words are there to remind all of us what our role in a democracy, and in any decent civilization is supposed to be.  When he calls on his fellow politicians to “love thy neighbor” and fight for “lost causes”, he is also addressing the audience to be as moved by his words as Paine to take action, to speak and act in truth and honesty — the American way, after all.

It is hard not to be inspired by Smith’s words and actions.  After all, we are raised to believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world.  As we grow older, and more wise in the way politics and business collude, then we grow to doubt this exceptionalism.  The Bush years of the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq and the response of Katrina have made it hard to see the U.S. in a good light.  And yet we still had hope — embodied in the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  But with an economic morass, expansion of a drone war, and political partisanship, it is hard to not have that cynicism and doubt sink back in.  But we want to believe in the potential: our history is fraught with wonderful things the country can accomplish when it sets its collective mind to do so.

And yet, this movie as a whistleblower to the collusion and corruption of government, business and press did not change things.  Nowadays it seems to be worse than during FDR and Capra’s time.  Entire news organizations seem like offshoots of the public relations department of one or the other political party.  Corporations are now deemed to have similar rights to human beings, flushing  opaque funding into political campaigns and drowning out the voices of ordinary people.  Smith would have us believe that an ordinary person can speak up, be heard, and have his voice change the nation.  It feels harder to do so — at least in a traditional sense.  The Internet, and the social media that use the network, have made it easier for ordinary people to have their voices heard, even if it is just heard by sharing a video with their social network.  But do we have the same power as Smith portrays?  The last man who appeared to embody Smith’s passion was taken out of office because we tweeted his Johnson to someone that was not his wife.  He didn’t need a political machine to take him down.

So does Mr. Smith Goes to Washington hold up?  As a cinematic text, it has well-written character arcs, the brashness to put to film something deemed un-American by those it was critiquing, and an amazing performance from one of the greats, Jimmy Stewart — not to mention a very strong supporting actress who is the real brains in the operation.  Listening to Smith’s filibuster speech, it is hard not to be inspired — to want to believe in him and in those like him to change the world.  He is exemplifying the passion of FDR, and the rhetoric of the filibuster closely aligns with the sentiments expressed by that president throughout his years in office.

But there is no way to deny that it is disappointing to watch the movie now and think that in the seventy years since its release we have not improved as a nation.  That we have not followed up on the work started by this fictional character.  And it may be because its early reception was to decry it as un-American; the cynic in me wonders if perhaps those in Congress at the time deemed it such to create the negative spin and undermine it, similarly to what Taylor did to Smith in the movie.  And it isn’t like we haven’t tried; but, somehow, there has never been enough public outcry to make the trifecta accountable for its collusion and corruption.

Maybe we need every high school civics class (if they still exist in this era of budget cutting) to show the movie and use it to draw parallels to what is happening in the world today.  We need our young people to be inspired by Smith.  But still the cynic in me doubts that the powers that be would allow that to happen, or get very far if it does.

Somehow we have to take the fiction into reality — we cannot just retreat into the fiction, think golly-gee isn’t it nice that Smith won, and then turn the channel when we hear of corruption in our world.  We need more real-life Mr. Smiths, now that Ted Kennedy, Bernie Sanders, and Russ Feingold have left the Senate.  And because we need that, now more than ever, I think this movie holds up.  It holds up because we need it to.

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