Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mr. Smith Goes to Washington</strong> (1939)

(On Cable TV, February 2018) It’s practically impossible to be an American political junkie and not know about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, given the film’s stature as a statement about the American political system and its iconic representation of James Stewart as a filibusterer. Curiously enough, though, I had never seen the film. Not so curiously enough, I had seen enough of James Stewart to be an unqualified fan of the actor even before watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That may explain why I spent most of the film in a buoyant joy, watching one of my all-time favourite actor in a film that, perhaps now more than ever, still resonates as an eloquent paean to the ideals of American-style democracy despite the messiness of its practice. It wasn’t necessarily perceived as such, though—If I believe the contemporary snippets quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page, the film was initially condemned for its cynical take on the corruption of the system, and the idealistic nature of its protagonist’s struggles. But while such an approach may have shocked well-meaning commentators then, it may strike contemporary viewers as healthy informed idealism today. Corruption is a natural enemy of governance at all times (now more than ever, considering a current presidential administration that spins off a new scandal every three days) but a healthy government has ways to fight back, and it sometimes takes just one person with the right ideals to make things happen. I still think that the film ends without a satisfying coda, that Stewart’s character is initially presented as too much of a simpleton, and that we don’t see nearly enough of Jean Arthur. On the other hand, Frank Capra’s film remains just as sharp and compelling today as it was—even the climactic filibuster sequence, with its near-real-time popular manipulation and reaction, still plays exceptionally well in this age of constant news cycle. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an acknowledged classic for a reason, and you don’t have to be a political junkie nor a James Stewart devotee to understand why.

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