A long time ago, in an America far far away…
A gifted director made a film about a greedy, imperial machine that was threatening freedom, and wielding its power over the innocent, the helpless, and the downtrodden. In the way of this immoral juggernaut stood the courage and the tenacity of one man—a man who grew up as a simple farm boy from the outskirts, suddenly finding himself thrust unwittingly into a struggle for truth, justice, and hope.
The director was Frank Capra, the year was 1939, and the film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
1939 was a great year for movies, giving us The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind among others, but it was a tumultuous year for planet Earth in general. The world was shuddering as millions of white men began slaughtering each other in Europe, and eventually roping the rest of the world into the carnage with them. The United States had not yet entered the conflict, but tensions were high as the doom of its European allies looked certain. Only a month and a half after Germany invaded Poland, Capra’s film blitzkrieged its way into American theaters with a Washington D.C. premiere. It was not well received by the local establishment. Though it was eventually banned in German occupied territory, the powers that be—in our nation’s capitol—were afraid that the movie was too un-American, at a crucial time, when anything but unquestionable patriotism was unacceptable. Thankfully, none of the unwarranted denunciations produced any real fruit as more serious and credible movie critics defended the film’s integrity. Through the lens of time, it has become clear that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not a film that criticizes Washington, democracy, or the political process—on the contrary, it’s a film that seeks to provide education on how Washington functions, defend pure democracy, and shine a light on elements that would seek to destroy the political process from the inside. And it’s meant to inspire hope. As Capra himself stated: “The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals.” History agreed with him, and 50 years after its release, having come full circle, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy of a place in the preservation vaults of the United States National Film Registry.
As for the plot… I’ll give you the overview. The ultimate villain of the story is a corrupt business mogul who has bought influence in the Senate by extracting the loyalty of those who are only concerned with maintaining their seats in Congress. The hero is Jefferson Smith, played by a young Jimmy Stewart; he’s the down to earth country boy that is appointed to the Senate by the Governor of his home state when the previous senator dies unexpectedly. The central conflict of the film revolves around a land appropriation bill that Smith introduces without knowing that the other senator of his state (an old family friend who he looks up to as a mentor) has already introduced legislation dealing with the same parcel of land—land which will profit his corrupt business mogul partner. As Smith is slowly drawn into a position where he is at odds with those he admires, and eventually threatened by them, we see him age from a wide-eyed, innocently naive, good guy, into a distraught, desperate, pariah who has had the wool pulled from his eyes. Jean Arthur plays the role of Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary and aide who has spent enough years in Washington to know how things actually work. The relationship dynamic between her and Smith is on point, as she helps him to see the reality of his situation and understand the struggle in which he’s embroiled, while he, in turn, helps her to shed her cynicism and recapture some of the hopeful idealism that she has lost along the way. The two of them genuinely need each other as the main battle ensues on the floor of the Senate, before eventually spilling out into the realm of public opinion—public opinion that is bought and paid for by big business and the press outlets it owns.
As I watched this movie, I found myself becoming more and more sad as I realized the terrible truth embedded in its plot—Capra’s film is highly satirical of course, but it contains a warning that our government and political process might be in jeopardy by immoral forces seeking to buy it, own it, and sell it at their leisure. The story that Capra told was ultimately a hopeful one. As Stewart collapses like a sacrificial lamb on the floor of the Senate after a marathon filibuster, the corrupt senator who has been accusing him becomes overwhelmed with guilt and confesses that he has been compromised and is morally unfit to maintain his seat in the government. This brings the story to a satisfying ending… that would never actually happen in real life. While Capra’s film has a positive, redemptive conclusion that should leave one feeling hopeful, it did not leave me with this feeling. Because it was made in 1939—at a time when there was still a chance to prevent what was happening, and to salvage American democracy from the hands of greed, corruption, and indifference.
Maybe I’ve become too pessimistic about this subject… Maybe I’m just tired of hearing everyone talk about it, when most people have no clue what they’re saying… those are two very good reasons for me to end this review right here, lest I begin spilling my thoughts out into the open as well. I don’t want to be that guy. So I’ll just end with this final thought:
We are now living in a time when even the echo of Capra’s warning has long since faded away, and in the wake of its passing, we have exactly what he imagined could happen if corruption was allowed to mature and thrive.
Or maybe it’s just a really good movie.