Saturday, March 5, 2016

AFI Top 100, #29: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

Movie Stats:
Released 1939 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Frank Capra
Stars - James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell

Plot Summary:
When a corrupt senator dies unexpectedly, his cronies, including Senator Joseph Paine (Rains), appoint naive non-politician Jefferson Smith (Stewart) in his place, thinking that they’ll be able to control him long enough to sneak some lucrative pork into a bill. They’re wrong. Arthur co-stars as Smith’s secretary, Saunders, and Mitchell as journalist, and good friend to Saunders, Diz Moore.

Minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
It’s pretty hokey.

The characters are too black and white. Except for Senator Paine (who doesn’t even redeem himself until the last three minutes), the bad guys are unrelentingly evil. Jefferson is so wholesome, he belongs in one of those commercials put out by The Foundation for a Better Life. It’s not even the lack of believability that bothers me; it honestly got tiresome after a while.

The ending is quite abrupt and open.

Good Stuff:
In my opinion, this is the role for Jimmy Stewart and he knocks it out of the park. Rains is no slouch either.

I like the idea that optimism and idealism can defeat cynicism and corruption. I don’t believe it, but I like it.

It does an excellent job of explaining how politics work without being boring. You come away from it feeling that you’ve learned something on top of being entertained.

Given the subject matter, it could have been preachy, but it’s not. It’s more like a fictionalized documentary than it is a film with a message to push.

The Verdict:
I can’t decide if this movie is depressing, because it shows that politics have always been as awful and corrupt as they are now, or if it’s comforting for the same reason. I loved it when I was younger. Now that I’m older, and a great deal more cynical, I'm more lukewarm toward it. I like the story, the acting, and (for the most part) the direction. Mostly, it’s the characterization that’s executed poorly, which could be a writing problem, although the dialogue is good. Also, I think there are some editing issues. All around, I would say that it’s solid and entertaining, but not very high on my “love” list.

I give it 3.75 stars.


Patricia said...

I also really liked this when I watched it during my high school years. Perhaps I liked learning/feeling smart about stuff as well as the optimism.

1939 was a very long time ago.

balyien said...

I watched it around 2007 or so and remember thinking that it seemed so naive. Watching it again now, I didn't get that. It rather ably portrays the cynicism of both politics and journalism, and just because there is a lot of optimism, doesn't mean it's going to go anywhere (the ending is rather open). It's funny how you can get different impressions at different times, even viewing things at one stage of adulthood versus another.