“I don’t pretend to know.”
“Then what are you doing in the Senate?”
Frank Capra has this rather naïve view of humanity. He sees all life as nothing but a battle of extreme good and extreme evil; a war between the Baileys and Potters; where the rich are seldom if ever wise, where the poor are noble by virtue of being poor. Any single story has flaws that are forgivable (except maybe for when he added the speech of extreme pacifism into Lost Horizon which never existed in the book, good call Frank, add a call for appeasement and peace at all costs in a 1937 film…let me know how that works out in the real world), but taken together they have revealed a view of the world that is a little off kilter. But as I said if you just take Capra’s films each on their own merit, and ignore the collective body of his work, they are good films. And Mr. Smith is no exception.
The forgivable flaws? That our supposed hero, Jefferson Smith, has to be the most seemingly ignorant Senator in the history of the body (I say seemingly, because, as we sadly know that most Senators make Smith, for all his ignorance, look like a Rhodes Scholar). Still the scene where his aide, the real hero of the film Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), has to explain how a bill becomes law is just so sad. I fully realize that I currently live in a nation where the majority leader in the Senate, the minority leader in the House, the President, and the Chief Justice put together don’t know jack about the Constitution or how a bill becomes law…but I have a hard time finding heroism in staggering ignorance. Especially for a man who claims to be a patriot. If you say you’re a patriot and don’t know how a bill becomes a law, well SHAME ON YOU—ENDLESS HEAPS OF SHAME! Now they claim Jefferson Smith knows the history of our nation and can quote it quite fluently (although they never show it) if you’re going to be a patriot you need to know something about your country, and I think how a bill becomes law is kind of simple (considering, that with the exception of knowing about committees, it’s kind of part of knowing the Constitution).
But enough about the flaws…because the strengths do overpower them.
You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.
First there is the point in this film that for all the corruption and flaws, this is a nation of laws. All the money and the corruption in the world can last for only so long against the law when it is enforced. Granted the Senate rules on filibuster may not be our most revered law, but the point is still clear. Even corruption is no match for the law when it is applied (that caveat being the important part). And this is why I think Saunders is the real hero of the film. She is the one who knows the law, and the one who teaches it to Smith. And it is in knowing the law that gives Smith the power to confront the corrupt in the Senate. And it is this moral that I think makes this movie the most patriotic that we have had yet: learn the laws of your nation, with them they give you the power to enforce liberty and justice, without them you are the victim of those who do know them.
And of course there is the subtle point here that ANYONE can challenge their government. Smith may have been lucky enough to get to the floor of the Senate, but any and all can peaceably assemble to “petition the government for redress of grievances.” (More so now in the day of mass communication and the internet).
And then there is a point about this movie that I find ironic, and I find it ironic because it is the reason so many liberals say they love the film. The film’s villain is a media mogul who uses his clout to control everything the public sees and hears and thus controls their opinion, and who then uses that power for his own avaricious ends. Capra seems hell bent on condemning the media. First for their desire to report on trivial nonsense only for entertainment, as when they tricked Smith into looking like a fool on his first day in Washington. And second for this monopolistic control of information. Liberals I know who like this film are very adamant at how evil this second point is….and then in the same breath will critique the existence of FOXNews, the Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh. How dare the media report anything but the left wing talking points! Just a slight irony there. However, I think it is also this point that will soon date this movie a little out of relevance. In an age where three major networks, three major cable networks, online journals, blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube, and Wikileaks…in an age where anyone from any strata of society can post a blog that can go viral, where anyone can donate to a SuperPAC that can get the message they believe in out, in a day and age like this is simply impossible to control the message. Your only option now is to make the more appealing message…and I may be more naïve than Capra, but I feel “the truth will out”, as it did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.