Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Mr. Smith Goes To Washington"

There is a point near the end of 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” where Smith is defeated. The media and the political machine have beaten him. Money wins and ideals lose. Of course at this point the elder senator has a crisis of conscience and confesses all. Good pulls out a victory. It’s Capra-corn at its finest. This film, more than any other, earns him that reputation. In “real life” things don’t work that way. In real life Senator Jefferson Smith loses.

It is hard to remember to place this film in its historical context. It is such a part of our public memory that it is almost timeless. This film was released a month after World War II started, but over two years before the United States joined the conflict. Those were different days. The country was suffering financially, but relatively isolated from other cares—except the ones that the media and political machinery orchestrated to keep public opinion busy. Come to think of it, maybe things aren’t so different.

Over seventy years later our system still works—just. But erosion has taken its toll. If anything, money and political power is stronger today than it was in 1939. The media more of an influence. The system may continue on autopilot but that can only last so long and the process that feeds the system is utterly bankrupt. In this film it took a “dumb-luck” appointment to effect change, because the electoral system was a sham. That may be the most realistic aspect of the entire story from today’s perspective.

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