On movie screens in 1939, a rube from a backwater burg took on Washington politicos, counting on the fundamental decency of the American people and their leaders to carry the day. Sixty-five years later, a bespectacled schlub from Flint, Mich., created a documentary in which he took on Washington politicos, and fundamental decency had a very small role.
At first blush, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Fahrenheit 9 / 11 seem worlds apart. Mr. Smith, in which James Stewart plays a mild-mannered boys' club leader-turned U.S. senator, offers an idealized view of the American political system. In sharp contrast, Fahrenheit, the latest liberal screed from documentarian Michael Moore, offers a scathing attack on a sitting U.S. president.
Despite their differences, both movies offer testimony to Hollywood's obsession with politics, one that goes back to the roots of cinema: In 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation blamed freed slaves and white carpetbaggers from the North for the mess that was politics in the post-Civil War South. This week, perhaps timed to tomorrow's opening of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, further evidence of that fascination arrives with a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 thriller in which Laurence Harvey was cast as a brainwashed ex-POW programmed to undercut the American political process in the most heinous way.
Such movies provide windows on the vast changes that have sculpted the political landscape over the years; if Frank Capra's Depression-era civics lesson is innately optimistic, then Michael Moore's wartime anti-Bush administration harangue seems afflicted by a whopping dose of cynicism. But in ways that may not be immediately apparent, the two films share similarities; each is a snapshot of a political system that works only if the citizenry pays attention and, perhaps more importantly, is given the opportunity to pay attention. Capra and Moore may seem unlikely bedfellows, but a careful look at how Hollywood has treated the great game of American politics over the years suggests a common thread.
True, audiences who routinely cheer the ultimate triumph of Mr. Smith may have no room for the cynicism or obvious bias of Fahrenheit. But both films suggest strongly that America's leaders would serve the electorate best by being honest -- a recurring theme in works such as The Best Man, Being There, Bulworth, Advise and Consent. It even pops up in comedies like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Dave, a gentle 1993 satire in which Kevin Kline plays a presidential lookalike who makes a better chief executive than the man he's hired to impersonate.
All political films share the common goal of peering "behind the veneer of the American process," says Murray Horwitz, director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. Over the years, what they find has seemed to change. "I think that political films in general have gone from a sunnier sort-of apprehension of the democratic process to a much more jaded -- I hesitate to say cynical, but certainly more skeptical and hard-boiled -- appreciation of what the process entails."
Faith in the people
The modern American political film began -- and, some would argue, reached its peak -- with Capra's Mr. Smith. Stewart, just beginning his career as Hollywood's favorite everyman, is Jefferson Smith, a political neophyte chosen by party bosses to finish the term of a deceased U.S. senator. An unknown, Smith is chosen not because he shares their ideology (he hasn't got one). Rather, the bosses figure he'll do whatever he's told. But Smith, whose belief in the American system comes directly from an elementary school textbook, rebels against the corruption everyone else takes for granted. After a bravura filibuster on the Senate floor, he manages to hold true to his ideals while giving his fellow senators a lesson in patriotism.
Mr. Smith set the template many political films followed, expressing a belief in the electorate but casting a skeptical eye at the elected. "We have the myth that the people are wise and good, but somehow the political choices they make are bad and corrupt," says Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation. "That seems to be the prevailing philosophy in political films."
Throughout the '30s and early '40s, many movies reflected a basic trust in government, a New Deal-era belief that our elected officials really were looking out for the little guy. In John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), one of the few friendly faces the Joad family meets during their desperate migration to California is a representative of the U.S. government who offers them the first real shelter they've had since leaving Oklahoma. It may have been no accident that the actor who played him, Grant Mitchell, looks vaguely like Franklin Roosevelt.
It's important to remember, however, that even a movie like Mr. Smith has dark undertones; his fellow senators, exemplified by Claude Rains as the conscience-stricken Sen. Joseph Paine, are a corrupt lot (one reason contemporary U.S. senators were no fans of the film). Movies like Citizen Kane (1941) and Preston Sturges' pointed satire, The Great McGinty (1940), wore their cynicism unvarnished, painting pictures of a political system where redemption was far from assured.
In post-World War II America, nostalgia for old-school politicians began to emerge. All the King's Men (1949), with Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, a political blowhard patterned after Louisiana's legendary megalomaniac Huey Long, held back nothing in its portrait of an American power broker corrupted absolutely. Still, it seemed to have a soft spot for the days when such political grandstanding was the norm rather than the exception. More overt in its sorrow for the passing of a certain kind of political animal was John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958), with Spencer Tracy as a big-city political boss watching his power slip away.
Paranoia creeps in
During the 1960s, Cold War-fueled paranoia doubtless contributed to the rise of the political thriller, a genre exemplified not only by the original Manchurian, but also by such seat-of-the-pants thrillers as Seven Days in May (1964), with Burt Lancaster as the leader of an attempted coup d'etat; The President's Plane Is Missing (1971), where news that Air Force One has disappeared is greeted with intense jockeying for position by power-crazed politicians; and The Parallax View (1974), in which the assassination of a U.S. senator leads to the uncovering of a vast conspiracy with dire political overtones.
"The point at which paranoia enters the movies is a bit difficult to isolate," says Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel. "There's sort of an arc from Mr. Smith, which is essentially a benign fantasy about one good man standing up to a right-wing conspiracy in the Senate, to a more generalized paranoia that perhaps all politics carries within it the seeds of evil."
Not surprisingly, the disillusionment that followed the Vietnam War and Watergate brought the rise of another riff on political films: the rise of the politician who achieves power only by bucking the establishment, becoming a folk hero in the process. In Michael Ritchie's The Candidate (1972), Robert Redford seeks office reluctantly, running only after being assured he needn't toe the party line. Still, a streak of cynicism shows through, as Redford's Bill McKay finds power far more alluring than he ever guessed. A similar fate befalls Alan Alda's character in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), an idealist whose personality grows ever darker as he becomes more and more powerful.
The 1990s brought a spate of movies featuring idealized politicians, doubtless a reaction by left-of-center Hollywood to the Clinton presidency. Rob Reiner's The American President (1995), written by Aaron Sorkin (who later would create TV's The West Wing) starred Michael Douglas as a president who abandons political expediency for doing the right thing. In Bulworth (1998), Warren Beatty plays a U.S. senator who, up for re-election and believing he's about to be killed, finally says what he really thinks. In Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998), John Travolta, as a barely disguised Bill Clinton, is a presidential candidate who rarely measures up to the idealized picture his followers have painted of him.
Among recent political films, two stand out as harbingers of where the genre may be headed. Barry Levinson's dark satire Wag the Dog (1997), with a screenplay co-written by David Mamet, stars Dustin Hoffman as a Hollywood producer who, when a sex scandal threatens to derail his favored candidate's quest for the presidency, "invents" a war to draw attention away from it. Rarely has politics been skewered so savagely or seemed so ignoble. In the world of Wag the Dog, where experts spend their lives twisting, shaping and often mangling information, if the electorate must depend on knowing the truth to make wise political choices, all may be lost.
And Rod Lurie's The Contender (2000) stars Joan Allen as a female vice presidential candidate who, on principle, refuses to answer questions about her past sexual activities, even if the refusal could cost her the job.
"Without a doubt, Joan Allen's character was a very idealized character," says Lurie, whose career has focused almost exclusively on films with politics at their center. "She was a person I wish I could be."
Lurie, whose dream project would be a drama about the first female vice president, acknowledges that a straight line connects his film with Mr. Smith. But it's a line heading in only one direction, and into ever-darker territory. The political world, he says, is too polarized to tolerate the idealism, the sense of being in it for the common good that lay at the heart of Capra's film.
"I think that political films have gone from being very hopeful to being extremely cynical," he says. "You might make a movie like Mr. Smith -- which certainly had its villains, but in the end, good triumphed over evil. But basically now, the world has become so partisan -- and I'm as guilty of this as the next guy -- that there is always a dark side of the force. You very rarely will find a movie that looks at [politics] obliquely, that looks at Republicans and Democrats under the same prism."
WHAT THE POLITICIANS LOVE TO WATCH
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R)
Primary Colors (1998)
"It was cast terrifically, [John] Travolta did a terrific job and it was pretty accurate."
Mayor Martin O'Malley (D)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
"It shows how easily even well-intentioned people can lose sight of the larger goal when they become obsessed with their own small piece of the struggle."
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D)
"Particularly in the context of where we are as a country today, I yearn for a leader who strives for peace, not war."
Michael Cornell (co-chair of Maryland Green Party)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
"Jimmy Stewart represents Everyman -- the little guy -- who won't back down in the face of political corruption, fights for what he believes in and reminds us of all that is right with democracy, in spite of all that is wrong. I'd love to see more Mr. Smiths in Congress."
City Council Member Keiffer Mitchell (D)
... And Justice for All (1979)
"Al Pacino was standing up against a powerful judge, and it's based in Baltimore. Pacino saw a revelation that he couldn't, in good conscience, represent this judge, even though he was a powerful figure in Baltimore."
Del. Gail Bates (R)
The Candidate (1972)
"It shows how a national candidate deals with the boredom of continuing to say the same things over and over, something we all deal with in a small way to keep on message."