When caricatures need a facelift...

Naïve Mr. Smith (James Stewart) gets appointed Senator by corrupt political machinery. After being shaken from his reverie for all things Washington, he takes a stand against the same corruption that got him there.

I must admit I had to think a bit to figure out why this movie is so well regarded. Sure, the mechanics of style are well executed, but like another of Capra's films, I initially found Mr. Smith and his experiences in Washington, a trifle simplistic for my tastes.

I'd love to see the politics of the times reflected in this film, but perhaps the treatment is too subtle, and my knowledge of the pre-war era a little scant. Hitler was starting to heat things up in Europe, comfortably far from the US, where folks seemed content to focus inward. Indeed, the nature of the corruption is one of the oldest, most constant themes we have - rich people getting richer on the backs of the people. Film being such a populist medium, telling a simple idea well tends to succeed more than an equally compelling complex idea. Even our irony-laden modern films often gain popularity on the same principles, just with a side of "edgy" commentary. See Forest Gump for one example of this.

I suppose the discussion of oversimplfication and the economics of film is beyond the scope of a review - perhaps that's just something we have to live with. The tradition of not taking sides politcally (at least not overtly) is firmly in place, though we may conclude that most of our characters, who are proclaimed to be of the majority party, are democrats, who held the senate by a three-to-one margin at the time. Can we tell because of the issues? Aside from trying to appropriate some relief money to the states, there's hardly any mention of something to take a political stand on. Perhaps we should conclude the movie is not about politics, but rather idealism.

I rather like that concept. It works well for Claude Rains' portrayal of the senior senator of Smith's state. He's a once-principled man who has slid down the slope of compromise and convenience. His performance is captivating, better than Stewart's in my opinion. I wanted the movie to be about him, in fact. Too bad his character is undercut by the fact we know what he'll do well before it occurs.

My biggest problem may be the clash of all this well-intentioned hyperbole with my cynical ears. From the early starry-eyed tour of Washington landmarks to the impassioned filibuster at the climax of the film, it feels too easy. Even the politcally inane Legally Blonde 2 had a more pragmatic air. I wish politics could be as simple as is presented in this film. The problem with standing for what you believe in is that people don't believe in the same things, much less stand for them.

I realize I'm focusing on one aspect here. That's the part that interests me. The other bits of the movie really do fit together well, from well-treated subplots, the cinematography, and how everything holds together on the emotional center of the film. Capra certainly stuck to what he knew how to do well. I just wish he'd found something less naïve to apply his technique to. I've got the box set of Capra's World War II documentaries (the Why We Fight series) - perhaps it's my cynical side, but it seems likely their subject will receive the same rallying cry of idealism. Stay tuned.

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