Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’: a relevant look at American politics

Nolan Fullington, Columnist

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a suit-and-courtroom film from 1939, directed by the great Frank Capra and stars none other than a young and energetic James Stewart alongside the steady and practiced hand of Claude Rains.

When a young and starry-eyed Jeff Smith (Stewart) finds himself appointed to the US Senate after the abrupt death of his predecessor, Smith’s excitement is crushed when he realizes that he was only appointed to “decorate a seat.” In response, Smith takes action to propose a bill to build a boys’ camp where, unbeknownst to him, a dam is soon to be built. Smith himself fights single-handedly in the Senate against a political machine, corruption and his idol, Senator Paine.

At its core, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” though a lopsided film, is about the underdog. A film where one person uses sheer will and determination to fight for what he believes is right against insurmountable odds — essentially, “The Rocky Story” and an exquisite feel-good and triumphant film.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” has become such a staple in the American zeitgeist for decades that it has achieved the status of being viewed as an “objectively great film.” Though, it is, the film takes almost an hour to present the central conflict in the film: Jefferson Smith wants a boys’ camp in a location that is currently being spotted for a dam. Smith fights back against the dam, which then releases the power and corruption of his colleagues onto him. That conflict makes the second half a riveting experience of joyous proportions.

However, the first half is very slow at presenting that conflict. There is a perfect 110- or 115-minute cut of this film somewhere. It’s troubling to get invested at first simply due to the lack of any conflict. The first half is largely establishing the character of Jefferson Smith as an optimistic young man who is still “wet behind the ears.” That is demonstrated comically when Smith must speak in the Senate where other senators laugh at him for his crippling fear of embarrassment; thus opening up the setup and payoff of Mr. Smith’s lack of deserved respect that he later does achieve, but the entire first half just feels like a setup.

This is the film that made James Stewart a star and he is just wonderful (my kernel of a pun nudging “It’s a Wonderful Life). Stewart himself was seen as the perfect actor for the role because of his young and idealistic personality. His idealistic fantasy of politics in Washington meets the cynical reality of what it’s really like.

What’s really jolting to Smith is that his mentor, Senator Paine, offers him two choices: buy into the system as Paine did or leave Washington. However, what makes Jefferson Smith such a likable protagonist is that he chooses neither. When he realizes his political idol, Senator Paine, is a pawn of a political machine, Smith is crushed. However, he chooses to fight back and do what he thinks is right. And his no-quitting attitude later in the film makes for such a gripping performance by Stewart with a stern and confident performance alongside him by the great Claude Rains.

Upon the film’s release, the film was under plenty of scrutiny due to its portrayal of American politics and was banned from many countries, especially Europe because the Americans did not want Hitler to see our government belittled. Politicians went as far as to call the film communist propaganda (a much larger discussion for another time about film and American history).

However, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” remains relevant today by reminding us that the United States government is that of the people, by the people and for the people.