I realize how ridiculous a question that seems, but allow me to explain. Every once in a while here in North America somebody comes into the government arena who seems to want to make our lives better. They can arrive at any level; city, state (or “provincial” here in Canada), or federal. They carry with them an air of optimism, of leadership, and of greater ideals. For weeks, months, or sometimes even years, they can galvanize the masses into believing that greater things are not only possible, but achievable.
More often than not though, they get caught in the gears of the same machine that has been running for centuries: that political machine interested in only the few, at the expense and ridicule of the many.
The true nature of politics is at the heart of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. The story begins with the death of an American senator. In accordance with American law, it is up to the state’s governor to appoint a replacement. After much debate, with supporters and opponents backing their own candidates, the governor ends up listening to the voices of his children at the supper table. They suggest he appoint the wholesome and popular Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) to the senate seat. Exasperated, the governor runs with it and names the do-gooder Smith as his senatorial appointee.
It’s no surprise that Smith is a favorite of the children, since he is a Baden Powell-esque leader to boys everywhere, leading them on camping expeditions, writing a newsletter, and conducting a marching band. After taking the post with much humility, he arrives in Washington D.C. awash in goosebumps…his eyes shrinkwrapped with tears of pride. However, the inspiration he gets from the nation’s capital will soon change, when he gets caught in the middle of a backroom deal that has him poised to be kicked out of office almost as fast as he arrived.
I knew a thing or two about MR. SMITH before I sat down to watch it. I knew that it was directed by Frank Capra in his idealist period, and as such would represent what was best about America. I knew that it starred James Stewart – a man who has a face that should be printed on money. And I knew the clever move that Mr. Smith would make to try to save the day (more on that later). It was time to fill in the blanks.
What caught me first about the film was how moved Smith is by the city of Washington D.C. It’s an important detail, since Smith doesn’t have the same stars in his eyes small-town folk do when they get to a big town. Conversely, he’s genuinely in awe with the idea of Washington, less so it’s marvels. The reason why this caught my attention is because I spent several days in D.C. last summer, and can see that city the way he sees it. It festoons itself in the higher ideals of the nation’s constitution, often going so far as to engrave these ideals in marble on its walls. It honours its heroes and warriors with likenesses and statues around every corner, to the point where one cannot escape them or their influence. Given how often people working in that city might need guidance, such inspiration is a good thing.
No film has captured that celebration of everything that is great about The American Ideal like this one. As Smith drafts a bill to allow boys to go to camp, he says that he wants the concept of the lit-up Capitol Dome to come to life for them. He wants to teach them “true liberty”, and not to have it live on the page of a text-book. I’m not sure how many American politicians on the federal level have seen this movie, but I doubt any one of them draws inspiration from their monuments the way Jefferson Smith does in this moment. After a while, politics becomes a job, and such romanticism has no place at the office.
To be clear, I don’t think this story is strictly an American one. The twisted system it describes can likely be found in the halls of government in London, Ottawa, Paris, Moscow, amongst many others.
The other idea that the film presents that is so quaint it’s charming is that of a media body that will hold its leaders accountable. When Smith finds himself as scandal-fodder shortly after getting to town, he makes a beeline for the reporters that put him in the position. However, upon stumbling into the newspaper lion’s den, he is quickly beat down by a horde of writers. They remind him that it isn’t their job to make the news, only to report on what has happened. Furthermore, that they are in a greater position of honesty since they don’t have to worry about re-election. They are the first to underline what Jefferson Smith has been appointed to do: Nod along and vote for what he’s told to vote for.
A media body this independent seems quaint; almost as quaint as the typewriters they slug away at. These days, it feels like every media body answers to one entity – and that entity is not as fair and balanced as it purports to be. The lean left, they lean right, they are corporately owned, and can no longer report with impartiality. In some ways they aren’t as interested in reporting the story as they are in fanning the flames. The fourth estate now functions less like the room of reporters holding Smith’s feet to the fire, and more like Jim Taylor’s media empire, reporting the version of the story they’ve been instructed to report – unconcerned with its veracity.
Filling in the blanks of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was a bittersweet joy. My filmgoing life is a little more complete now that I have seen the pluck and sand Jean Arthur can bring to any scene. Likewise, no evening watching James Stewart work his everyman charm can ever be considered less than pure joy. His wry humour as he says “Looks like the night shift is coming on” is unmatched in modern hollywood. Still, as much as I loved MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON – and I really loved it – I’m left with a feeling of sadness.
It’s sad that after seventy years, it’s the virtues of this story that seem so dated, and not the corruption. Where Jefferson Smith decided to stand up and filibuster to bring the truth to light, American politicians now threaten to filibuster to stall things they don’t like. Where idealists may have once had a place in leading their nations, they now get swallowed up, and become one more dealmaker and promise breaker. Politics have become less about looking out for the needs of the many, and more about addressing the wants of the few. Most of all, politics are about keeping one’s job. Politics are indeed, completely political.
The Jim Taylors of the world ultimately won, and the Jefferson Smiths were back-benched. This isn’t an American story – it’s the way of the world.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for April (so far)…
Dave Voigt wrote about PLAY TIME
Allison wrote about UMBERTO D.
Jandy wrote about WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF
Courtney Small wrote about THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Bob “I Remain a Rare and Precious Snowflake” Turnbull wrote about two again: KRAMER vs. KRAMER and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT
Dan Heaton wrote about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Max wrote about 12 MONKEYS
A new player on the bench, Sean Kelly, wrote about BOTTLE ROCKET
Steve Honeywell wrote about CITY LIGHTS
Andreas wrote about ROCCO & HIS BROTHERS