PATRIOT MONTH #1: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, by Frank Capra (1939)

Type of Media: Film

Even though political cynicism has been on the rise recently, as politicians become more brazen about their close ties with private interests, it’s far from a new concept. There have been jokes and stories of slimey public servants for years, to the point that the phrase ‘an honest politician’ is pretty much only used sarcastically. But what if there really was an honest politician? Like, honest to a fault? This is the fantastical concept at the heart of Frank Capra’s beloved political comedy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film where wide-eyed idealism triumphs over apathy that should be a part of every American patriot’s film diet.

James Stewart stars as the titular Mr. Jefferson Smith, a wholesome Boy Ranger leader and local hero who gets appointed to the United States Senate to fill a seat left by a deceased senator. Once he arrives in Washington and clears the stars from his eyes, though, he soon discovers that he was only appointed as a stooge to vote for corrupt legislation. Fighting back against graft, Smith and his jaded secretary Saunders try to reveal the truth without getting crushed by the private interests behind the scenes.
Morally, Smith is a literal Boy Scout (well, Boy Ranger since the Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t let their name be used in the movie). He exhausts his handlers with constant visits to monuments, and nearly every newsman and politician he meets finds his enthusiasm for America either amusing or tiresome. His one idea for legislation is establishment of a national nature camp for boys, which is met with smiles and eye rolls. However, after a while his commitment to serving the nation starts to wear down the layers of cynicism of the people around him, and when he starts his fight against corruption he gathers some allies. The press, who early on deride Smith for being an inexperienced bumpkin, becomes one of his most valuable allies. Saunders uses her civic expertise to formulate him a battle strategy. Even the Vice President, who presides over the Senate, helps Smith in small ways because he can see Smith’s earnestness.
It’s an infectious earnestness, and it spills out into the audience too. Stewart’s stumbling, gee-whiz performance is a little grating at first, but it’s hard not to get swept up in Smith’s love for all things American when he’s staring up at the Lincoln Memorial in awe. It also sets up his devastation later in the movie, when he finds out just how business in Washington is actually done. The idea of politicians getting in bed with private interests for the sake of pragmatism is something Mr. Smith Goes to Washington eschews. To Jefferson Smith, how can a senator say they’re representing the people when they take orders from a financier?
While today Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is seen as a classic film, to the point that it’s sometimes used in high school civics classes as a teaching aid, it was actually fairly controversial when it released. Several politicians and reporters criticized the film for making the U.S. government look like a bunch of crooked idiots, some going so far as to call it pro-Communist propaganda. Strangely enough, despite this the Soviet Union banned Mr. Smith from showing, as did fascist Spain, Italy, and Germany, and the film became hugely popular in France during German occupation. They probably saw what a lot of Americans didn’t. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington isn’t about how the US government doesn’t work, it’s about how the idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people is so powerful it can motivate people to stand up for their convictions and fight for lost causes.
If you’re looking for a movie to watch on July 4th, maybe shelve the war fantasies like Independence Day and give Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a view. It may be light on action, but some of the most worthy battles aren’t fought with blood and steel.