Yesterday, the political classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington celebrated its 75th Anniversary. That means, in terms of historical placement, Frank Capra’s movie is now closer to the adoption of the 13th Amendment than it is to our current moment. That chronological context might, at first, seem to explain the film’s moral simplicity, its distinct straight line between good and bad (the Capra-line, if you will). It was a simpler time, a newer art form, a younger democracy, and a country not yet fully aware of the violently dark corners of humanity that would be navigated during World War II. And, even so, more than any other war, WWII was a war in which good and evil were clearly defined. Everything was black-and-white back then.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington runs over two hours, and yet the words “Republican” and “Democrat” are never used. The party affiliations of the characters are never addressed. The viewer’s alliance is never in need of that information, just as it is never in need of any central conflict more incendiary than a little bit of corruption impacting the Boy Rangers in Senator Smith’s home state. That still-assured alignment of the viewer is the product of early film technique brilliance. Of course, Stewart brings his aw-shucks, Midwestern, everyman goodness to the role and applies it as sharply as ever. For his part, Capra goes to great lengths to “shrink” the notably tall, notably-broad shouldered actor as he holds his filibuster position in the Senate chamber. Until his moment of victory, camera angles, scale, and positioning present Mr. Smith as increasingly small, worn, and miniscule. A hopeless and beaten underdog caged with rabid fat cats. As he keeps fighting, against the odds, he recalls some of the most weighted symbols in the democratic landscape– The Declaration of Independence, Lady Justice, etc. This movie rests its weight on the simplest cinematic tools and navigates through all the patriotic shortcuts, which, one would think, wouldn’t build a film worth revisiting 75 years after its release. So why does it work so well?
While it holds its comedic and inspirational value, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has a sense of alien-ness to it. There is something at the core which feels entirely unfamiliar, but only to a curious degree, not a ruinous one.
Certainly, any film in the present day that would set to utilize such a minimalist slate of umbrella editorializing would be a failed proposition from its start. Social media, along with the ready-availability of all information (right and wrong), works to nurture the modern intellectual and academic ego. Consider the outcomes of our country’s last two famous filibusters. I’m sure it’ll raise eyebrows when I say this, but both Wendy Davis and Ted Cruz were commendable in their commitment to their physical and philosophical positions. But ultimately, the act of filibustering in and of itself did nothing more than further ignite tensions that were already on fire, just enhanced gaps that already existed and served as extra ammo for the talking point machine guns of Twitter and Facebook.
Today, we love our issues, sure, but we also love our own sense of right-ness even more. In that sense, there is no real modern use for a movie that attempts to unite its audience into one politically philosophical perspective; rather, we’d prefer a film in which at least a formidable minority could form an opposition to the thesis. We would would need for the film to assign political parties so we would know which perspective to defend. We would need something more hot button than a Boys Troop campground. Some segment of the audience would need to criticize Stewart’s everyman portrayal as pandering to a portion of America that too readily simplifies or ignorantly overlooks political complexity and Senator Paine’s crookedness would need to be dismissed as a cheap strawman. Film nostalgia would have us believe that that’s the world we live in now.
But, let’s recall the allusion with which we opened this discussion. About seventy-five years before this film, the 13th Amendment was adopted. If we are to believe Steven Spielberg’s 2012 political drama Lincoln (and its source material which I highly recommend: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) then we come to realize that this isn’t a condition of cultural attitude new to our time. Blind political alignment, the compromising of ethics for manufactured identities, the shady ways in which morality has found itself negotiated- it’s all been going on for a long, long time, not just in the governing bodies of America, but in the history of civilization. Long before Jimmy Stewart ever feigned fainting from exhaustion on the Senate floor.
But that disqualifies and discredits nothing in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, because maybe it works out best this way. We can dismiss the simplified thematic perspective as being a product of nostalgia for a simpler time (even if it isn’t) and still enjoy the movie without having to openly admit how useful that central thematic perspective happens to be (even if it’s difficult to place in real modern life). It is an idea that is not just intriguing, but imperative: the idea that maybe that sort of goodness can and does exist, that a man or woman can shoulder the weight of his or her principles rather than step on them to elevate recognition of a personal brand. Sometimes, art is allowed to (and must) create the truths that we need when we can’t locate them in the non-fiction world. No one made this truth more believable than Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.