Much like Capra's other revered classic It's A Wonderful Life, there is a heavy cloud of nostalgia that covers Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which affords it a place high on top film lists one that is hardly questioned and deservedly so, since it is nothing short of perfect. Yet, when one considers the holy grail element of this specific film, it becomes problematic to think that given its understanding as a great American film it is often set aside for rewatching or referred to with any critical seriousness. Sure, it gets mentioned as a joke here and there, most recently I believe in a tip of the hat to Senator Davis' epic filibuster, but it seems as though Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not earnestly considered for its invective look at the state of American politics, one that considers the many flaws of "business as usual politics" that are run by a ton of old white guys who are purely in it for the side money they receive from maniacal tycoons with wild capitalist endeavors. The movie I am describing sounds as though it would have come from the heart of New Hollywood, or would equally have been the product of an Aaron Sorkin script, but no, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in all its forward looking criticism and indictment of a corrupt American legislative branch was made in 1939, some eighty odd years ago. It is one thing to look at the civil rights movement and feel frustration at the lack of change in a fifty year period, but it is literally doubly troublesome to realize that political corruption has been a topic of condemnation within American popular culture rhetoric for almost a century, the problems of which have seemingly gotten worse. Indeed, much like Capra's other previously mentioned Stewart vehicle, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington spends much of its time with a narrative that is bleak and seemingly lacking in any resolve, yet it is during the final moments of the film that all is saved through the good in humanity, which as idealistic as it may be is sold with such earnestness through the ever amiable acting of Jimmy Stewart and the melodramatic leanings of Capra. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, unlike a political film of the new era, lays on the indictment, only to suggest that even in its darkest moments, good can and should prevail. Tragically, if anything, that is what betrays this film to a bygone era. Were this film to be released today, it would undoubtedly fail in the face of a crippling sense of disillusionment about the American political machine.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington begins with an announcement of rather unfortunate news regarding the loss of a senator in a non-specified Western state. This untimely death leads a group of party politicians in a frenzy attempting to find a replacement for the senator that will not only make constituents comfortable, but will also prove to bend to the will of the powers that be, as such the "elective" body calls upon Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) a wide-eyed idealist who is most known for his community outreach regarding orphaned boys as opposed to possessing any sort of intelligence. Initially reluctant to take up such a task, Smith realizes that such an appointment will allow him to pursue a lifelong goal of creating a national boys camp wherein both well-off and underprivileged kids can attend camp by paying whatever pocket change they can afford. Of course, the blind sense of idealism Smith brings to the senate is quickly challenged when both the long standing legislative officials and media alike use him as a battering ram for their own self-advancement. Nonetheless, Smith assures himself that if he is to prove successful in his position he must learn to play by the rules to the most specific details, therefore, recruiting the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) in the process. Initially, Saunders is rather hesitant to aide in Smith's idealism, particularly since she is afforded financial gain by his mockery, however, when his passion captures her heart, not to mention Smith's good looks, she yields to his request and begins an equally driven attempt to pass his bill. The bill in its seemingly innocent nature, comes up against opposition by members of his own state, whose vested interests in the wealth of a local tycoon, are challenged since Smith plans to build the camp on a creek that is home to a prospective dam. It is at this point that the entirety of the senate turns against Smith, including his own party, tricking him into not only being absent during the voting of the bill, but also blackmailing him with false papers about the profits he would gain from such a camp being built. Knowing that he has truth on his side, Smith pushes on engaging in a filibuster that he hopes will show not only the power of democracy, but also speak to his honesty in the situation. While attempts are continually made to discredit Smith, one of his colleagues who was in on the corruption eventually succumbs to his own guilt and admits to Smith's honesty. After a full twenty-four hours of expounding upon freedom and the constitution, Smith has successfully proven his case and assumedly earned the camp he greatly desired, as well as a symbol of democracy working for the people, as opposed to a singular person.
Corruption in politics is certainly not an infrequent theme in cinema, both within and American and global context, however, much as Capra considers the multiple facets of spirituality in It's A Wonderful Life, here his camera focuses on the layers of deception and indifference that result from a split-party elective body in the United States that is solely focused on assuring one's own skin through continual re-election. The running joke throughout the film is the notion that once a politician lands a seat on the senate he is solely concerned with assuring that he keeps that position until death, the only way of which to do so is to keep his (I use the masculine because the film clearly calls attention to the problematic patriarchal element of politics) mouth shut and nod in agreement to his senior colleague. This silencing bars any sort of idealism from sprouting within the hallowed halls of the capitol, so much so, that when a person does speak out it is met with opposition. The idea of opposition, is not simply an attempt to discredit one's character in a ethics committee, but within the media as well, which is portrayed in an equally scathing manner. In fact, it is the media who seem intent on maligning Smith solely for their own humor, painting him as a wild man who is coming to chop away at the absurdity of government, although to be fair at least one of those accusations proves to be true. The corruption is further problematized when it is shown that a reputation can be ruined even before a man is allowed to defend himself, as is the case with Smith when he attempts to have his constituents speak on his behalf, only to be outpaced by a financial strong arm that controls all the media in his area. The brilliance results not from Smith's refusal to bend to the will of corrupt power, but from the fact that it is through a small, non-profit youth paper that his truth is spoken. This sort of grassroots moment is wonderful because it shows that with a sincere message and the zeal to deliver it one can truly accomplish things politically. This is not the misguided frustration of an Occupy movement, or the throw money at the problem focus of big money charity-based lobbying. It is a simple idea of speaking truth to both visible and hidden power, a pertinent message if ever one existed.
Key Scene: For all the amazing diatribes that Stewart throws down in this movie, it is the small and rather unusual moment that involves a close-up of Smith fumbling with his hat that is the highlight of the film. Not only is it unusual for a film of this era, it also happens to be a telling sign of his character which would evolve in assertiveness throughout, his hat and his control over it continually serving as a parallel.
Buy this movie. NOW.