Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

We have been watching Mr Smith Goes to Washington all week and finally finished it today. It’s such a perfect film–so well acted (Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart are superb), so relevant to the role of money in politics today. At the same time it accurately portrays the way the Senate works in every technicality, including a very dramatic filibuster.

It’s a dark film actually. Though couched in the sentimentality of democracy, common sense, and human decency, the actual machinations of the congress are portrayed as corrupt, greedy, lacking in moral compass. The only reason Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) triumphs in the end has nothing to do with the system working, but rather because another character confesses to his own corruption.

The script is smart, sarcastic, witty, snappy. Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jefferson Smith’s secretary, is especially awesome as a character, delivering her cynical and sarcastic lines with a sharp savviness and sophistication. In fact, at the end of the film, one student said, “That movie was not about Jefferson Smith. That movie was about Saunders. She was the star.”

I saw one student crying near the end. She drew her knees to her chin and hugged her legs.  Another pumped his hands when Jefferson Smith refused to yield the senate floor. The students gasped at the attacks on the Boy Rangers by the Jim Taylor machine. They laughed at the President of the Senate’s encouragement of Jefferson Smith during his filibuster. One of my classes applauded when the movie ended.

One of the characters, Sen. Joe Payne, offers his justification for the part he plays in the corruption.  “You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting. Half the time they don’t vote anyway. That’s how states and empires have been built since time began. Don’t you understand? (Pause) Well Jeff, you can take my word for it. That’s how things are.”

With the role of lobbyists, the Koch Brothers, Citizens United, and yes, two thirds of the people not voting, our democracy today feels bruised, abused, and misappropriated. 75 years ago, Frank Capra directed this filmic gem. It is still able to hold the attention of hip 13 and 14 year olds, its message still fresh and very sadly relevant.

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