Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Most Cynical Movie About American Politics EVER?


When people think of Frank Capra, they usually think Rockwellian schmaltz. Well, that, or semi-racist, state-funded, anti-Japanese propaganda from the World War II years. Either is a good call, I reckon.

Although Capra has perhaps the cheeriest reputation of any mainstream, commercially successful director in Hollywood history (yeah, even jauntier than Spielberg’s pre-“Schindler’s List” rep), the fact remains that perhaps his most famous film not about Christmas is one of the most depressing and cynical motion pictures ever filmed about American politics. Forget “All the King’s Men” and all of that crap Oliver Stone churned out, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” isn’t just the most sneering and sardonic movie ever about the U.S. government, it’s probably the most stinging criticism of federal government in all of 20th century pop culture.

Yes, I’m talking about that “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Yes, the one from 1939, starring Jimmy Stewart as a Boy Scout leader that gets drafted into Congress. Although most film analysts and cultural connoisseurs look back upon the film as a whimsical take on pre WWII-involvement politics, those of us with deeper perceptions know that this thing is more anti-state than a Rage Against the Machine cover band consisting of Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, Randy Weaver and The Unabomber…on drums, of course.

You scoff when I call the film some of the most scathing and scintillating anti-federal agitprop of the 20th century? Well, how about we go back and re-watch the film, and count up five specific scenes and recurring themes that prove just how cynical and condemnatory the film was of the then-current political panorama in the US?


CYNICAL CONDEMNATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS #001


Thanks to cronyism, ANY dumbass on the street can become an elected official


Time to make my eighth grade civics teacher proud. You see, it wasn’t until 1913 that American voters were allowed to directly elect their state Senators - before that, they were pretty much appointed by the head of state, whom, not surprisingly, gave the positions to the guys most likely to do whatever they told them to. Now, there is a caveat in the amendment, which allows the state to temporarily appoint someone to a Senator position, pending an unexpected leave of absence by a standing official. In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” this scenario is provided via the untimely death of the unnamed state’s junior Senator, which leads to the kooky turn of events resulting in Jefferson Smith - a Boy Scout leader - becoming a member of the Senate.

Clearly, Jefferson Smith has no business in an office of any kind, be it the Senate, the House of Representatives or even an Allstate branch. Despite having absolutely ZERO political experience - hell, it’s not even clarified if the guy has an education beyond junior high - he gets promoted to one of the most prestigious and important positions in all of the U.S. government, serving as the direct voice of god knows how many people.

The message of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” is loud and clear: the public has virtually no say on who it is that governs them. Jeff Smith, alike the hundreds of representatives currently sitting in Congress, wasn’t so much elected as he was appointed by already standing politicians based on his perceived pliability to certain causes, and the precise moment he starts making decisions of his own accord, WHAM! An entire congressional bloc rises from the depths to bog him down in a fabricated investment scandal.

Capra’s film is more in line with a Bill Hicks routine than it is a Bob Hope USO show. According to this film, we American voters only have the illusion of choice, the illusion of genuine representation as citizens, in our elected officials. We don’t have a say in who runs the country, but the people that run the country sure as hell have a lot of sway in deciding how we run our lives…and those “officials,” by the way, have anything but our best interests at heart when it comes to their decision making processes.


CYNICAL CONDEMNATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS #002


The press and government are in cahoots, and the only way to overcome them both is through LOTS and LOTS of face punching


Literally his first day on the job, Mr. Smith is ridiculed by a gaggle of reporters, whom seem to take advantage of his apparent (OK, pretty damn obvious) naivety. After getting wind of some unflattering published materials, Jefferson reacts the way any reasonable government official would: he decides to break into a newspaper joint and start punching the shit out of everything that moves. My, how times have changed. Back in the late ‘30s, randomly assaulting members of the press was considered whimsical - these days, can you imagine the scandal that would arise if Dick Durbin went on a reporter face breaking spree across the Beltway?

The film is implying that the media in the US is pretty much state-run and ineffective in detailing the true workings of the American political system. Alike the government, the media says that it’s a service to the people, but it’s a service that only works against the people and for it’s true benefactors. Per “Mr. Smith,” the media and the government are in cahoots, locked in this parasitic relationship in which both ticks get fat off the lifeblood of the other, while the common man is left out of both processes altogether.

Even darker is the apparent solution Capra presents to the audience. You can’t instigate social change through politics, and you can’t instigate it through the media, so what do you have to do if you want genuine cultural change in this country? If Jeff Smith is supposed to show us the way, it’s one that can only be obtained when you start swinging your fists around like a Medieval mace in the company of all oppressors.

CYNICAL CONDEMNATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS #003

YOUR (sometimes unelected) officials are more than likely child predators

Look, this is probably the easiest low road anybody can ever take about anything, but it’s something you might as well just come out and say: Jeff Smith was, more than likely,, a genuine, 100 percent, unabashed paedo.

Boo and hiss all you want, but shit, is it anything but subtle. I’ve seen the movie at least five times now, and it wasn’t until my very last screening that I realized that Mr. Smith had a female love interest in the film. Odds are, you don’t notice her in the scenes that take place between her and Mr. Smith, because there are so many Boy Scouts running around the place in virtually every scene the two characters are in. The Smith compound, for all intents and purposes, was pretty much the Neverland Ranch, sixty years before the Neverland Ranch.

Obviously (and thankfully), the movie never really explores the personal kinks of Mr. Smith too in depth, but I think we all know what’s going on once those junior scout meetings conclude. The message, while never explicitly stated, is apparent nonetheless: when our elected officials talk about how much they love our nation’s children, they mean they really love our nation’s children…if you get my drift.[*]

[*] And by that, I mean most politicians are probably chi-mos.

Unfortunately, when Jeff Smith said "he wanted to have some kids," she sort of misconstrued his statement.

 CYNICAL CONDEMNATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS #004

The state-sanctioned media has NO QUALMS WHATSOEVER about running over children, if they really have to

Whenever I hear people talk about this film being such a schmaltzy ode to Americana, I just have to shake my head. Dude, did you not see the scene where a guy in a newspaper truck runs over a kid on his bicycle?Or how about the scene where a bunch of bought-off newsmen break into some elementary schoolers’ makeshift printing press operation, and start throwing them around like lawn darts?

There’s an old adage that says something to the effect of “you can’t fight city hall.” Well, according to Capra, not only can you not fight Capitol Hill, if you even remotely put up a struggle or serve as an obstacle to their nefarious ventures, your ass is dead meat.

If a politician decides to overthrow his self-imposed shackles and stand up for the common man and his wants, what happens to them, according to this movie? Well, they either end up in jail, dead, or in jail, being dead. Not only are dissident officials seen as targets by “Mr. Smith’s” federal system, even supporters of dissident officials have bull’s-eyes on them.

The federal system, in the movie, anyway, is so massive and far reaching that you can’t even attempt to start an opposition, even in the form of a crappy newsletter printed by a bunch of fifth graders. If you attempt to speak the truth - as a congressman or a mere journalist - prepare to feel the wrath of Uncle Sam falling on you like an anvil in oh so many a Looney Tunes cartoons. You can’t win, so don’t try - the ultimate lesson of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” for you in just six syllables.


CYNICAL CONDEMNATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS #005


The only way to instigate true political change in the U.S. is through martyrdom


Originally, Capra wanted to end the film by showing Mr. Smith and his new wife (supplied by the same agency that lent one to Rock Hudson, I presume) hanging out at a parade with about a million billion children. However, he ended up using an altogether different ending for the film, in which an exhausted Smith drops to the floor of the Senate just as the corrupt officials come clean about their dirty doings.

The thing about the ending that nobody seems to pick up on is that, apparently, Mr. Smith DIES at the end of the film. Nobody says “hey, he’s still breathing,” nor is it even mentioned that he passed out as opposed to kicking the bucket. Odds are, if the guy really spent several days pacing back and forth, spewing gobbledygook nonstop without eating, drinking or pooping, there’s a very, very strong likelihood that he experienced some sort of instantaneous death. Seeing as how the movie never tells us that he got a chance to use the restroom over the week long filibuster, it’s quite possible that at the moment of his collapse, he actually experienced a lethal rush of septic shock, perhaps from an exploded kidney or a prolapsed spleen crashing into his lower intestine with the velocity of a bile filled bullet.

I’m not really sure you can formulate a more cynical political message than the one in this movie: if you stand for valor, and integrity, and you actually want to make a difference in the world, what must happen to you first? Well, if the movie is any indication, being a corpse is a prerequisite. Not only is the movie a stinging condemnation of U.S. politics, it’s also an extremely cynical take on justice and human nature, too.

At the end of the day, “Mr. Smith” was pretty much covering the EXACT same quasi-political, philosophical territory “The Dark Knight” trudged. . .only a good seventy years in advance.

He isn't the hero Washington wants...but dammit, he's the hero it deserves.
 
Just because the movie was directed by the same guy that gave us “It’s A Wonderful Life” - and perhaps more so because it has that unbecoming reputation behind it - most moviegoers tend to overlook the film as pro-America gobbledygook, and tend to overlook the much, MUCH darker subtext of the flick altogether. The reality is, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a way deeper - and most certainly, way less enthusiastic - film about American government than you may initially suspect, and a movie that I believe deserves at least one re-watch with all of the above themes kept in mind.

Hey, it is an election year, after all - what better way could there be to kick it off?

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