An ordinary American appointed to the Senate is nearly destroyed by a corrupt political machine, but triumphs in the end. [Dir: Frank Capra/ James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains/ 125 min/ Drama, Comedy/ Corrupt Government]
Think all hope for liberty is lost? Need some inspiration? This is the film to watch. This hero's quixotic battle of one against the ill-informed many is an image with which many libertarians will identify.
Events here are initially set into motion by the sudden death of a big-time senator from a western state. The governor of this state must appoint a replacement, but it can't just be any qualified candidate. It also has to be someone who is easy to control. That's because a cabal of corrupt officials-- including the governor, the state's other senator, and the power broker who ultimately controls them all -- have been setting up a major scam that's just about to pass the Senate.
They can't risk having someone appointed who may be able to figure it out.
So the governor appoints a popular Boy Scout leader, a naive, patriotic, wet-behind-the-ears type from the American wilderness. The cabal figures he'll be no match for Washington, D.C., and they're right. He's humiliated by the pressand manipulated by the other senator from his state.
However, his self-evident goodness wins over his otherwise cynical secretary, who had been hired to help control him. She reveals to him the scam that has been going on behind his back. He tries to expose it, and is nearly destroyed by the powers that be. But his unyielding determination to prevail in this hopeless battle against evil ultimately wins the day.
This film gets points for its effective portrayal of a cynical and self-serving Congress and for its dramatic enshrinement of the Founding Fathers and their ideas. The hero doesn't really understand these ideas well enough to identify what's gone wrong in Washington, but he does succeed at least in rooting out the thicket of political crookedness.
The film is also instructive about the process of how laws are made, and how they're corrupted.
This is a terrifically engaging drama that will really make you feel for the naive hero and his youthful allies, as it pulls at your heartstrings all the way through. At the same time, it also has a delightful comic element. Direction is tight, artful, and effectively melodramatic, with the extra touches that distinguish great cinematic work. James Stewart, in the leading role, is ideal as the vulnerable hero, and he is supported by a superb cast.
This is a powerful film, which at its first opening was the subject of considerable controversy. When the Washington Press Club sponsored the films debut, inviting four thousand politicians, politicos, and other guests, the premier backfired. Some of the guests were offended by the film's criticism of Washington, arguing that it would hurt the country's morale. Columbia Pictures was subsequently offered several million dollars to shelve the film but released it anyway.
This article is reprinted from Jon Osborne’s Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film and Video: Movies for the Libertarian Millennium, available in the Advocates Liberty Store.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was directed by Frank Capra.