Geoffrey Long
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Critiques: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Last night Laura and I continued our trek through the AFI top 122 with Frank Capra's 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of the films I'd been most looking forward to for several reasons.

One, I'm a big Jimmy Stewart fan. Cary Grant and John Wayne are both awesome in their own ways, but I'm a sucker for Jimmy Stewart's aw-shucks delivery, and the through-and-through wholesomeness of his Jefferson Smith appeals to the anti-ironic optimist in me (which is almost constantly struggling for survival). This is amplified by the director, Frank Capra – the term Capraesque has come to mean a sort of overly saccharine, cheesy over-the-topness in Hollywood, but I'd argue that this is because so many other directors who have tried to emulate Capra have simply done it badly. The viewing public was subjected to a raft of Capra wannabes in the 1980s, which I suspect is largely to blame for the rise of irony and darkness in the 1990s. While I'm a big fan of dark entertainment, I'd also like to see a return to this kind of attitude. Innocence is the wrong word, but optimism might be the right one.

Two, I'm also a big fan of hopeful political movies and shows, as anyone who's read my ravings about Aaron Sorkin on this blog well knows. Academics and social critics cluck their tongues and note that the aforementioned dark, ironic flavor to the zeitgeist is reflective of the downfall of the American empire. I fell hard for Sorkin's The West Wing soon after I moved to Washington, DC in 2000, which is also one of the main reasons why I've railed so hard about the Bush administration for the last eight years – at the same time that I was listening to Sorkin's paeans to classic American ideology I was surrounded by evidence of corruption, cronyism and incompetence at the highest levels. The despair that I felt was driven largely by a sense that politics had become irretrievably corrupted in an age when someone could so blatantly steal an election, and that despair gave way to complete surrender and acceptance when he was re-elected. Watching Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, however, suggests to me that this is where Sorkin first learned the tune, and the fact that the American government was shot through with such corruption back in 1939, and the film's reminding me that Washington and Lincoln both had to deal with the same type of issue, reminds me that this so-called "downfall of the American Empire" is not a modern issue at all, but an eternal struggle inherent to any systemic ordering of power. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" has always been true, but by the same token there have always been people in office who genuinely, truly believe that they're doing the right thing. I've never once believed that George W. Bush is one of them – I have hope that someone like Barack Obama might be, but I'm also not that inspired by any of the candidates. Me, I miss Al Gore – good enough for a Nobel prize but not good enough to be awarded the Oval Office. Sheesh.

Getting back to the film, it's possible that only Capra can do Capra because any modern attempt to do the same thing will simply be written off as heavy-handed – but the film is worth seeing for much more than just the shots that we typically associate with Capra now. Sure, there are the lingering shots on parts of the Lincoln Memorial with the particular passages he wants us to read highlighted in an illuminated band in the middle of the screen, and yes, there's one shot where we're shown Jean Arthur's Clarissa Saunders falling in love with Senator Smith with all the subtlety of a megaton warhead, but at the same time there's one long shot where we're shown Senator Smith's awkward twitterpation for Astrid Allwyn's Susan Paine by tracking the way Stewart keeps fumbling with his hat. Allwyn isn't in the shot at all, and we only catch a glimpse of Stewart's face once or twice, because the camera tracks the hat in a moderate close-up as it twirls from hand to hand, falls to the floor, is scooped up, is brought hesitatingly up to his head, almost plunks down there, then is brought back to his side and dropped to the floor again. It's a brilliant shot, and one that I'll probably use to illustrate symbolism 101 in a classroom someday.

As restorations go, the Columbia Classics DVD is far from ideal. There are several scenes where there's very clearly a scratch in the film or a hair on the lens, something that could be fixed very easily given a $300 piece of software today. The sound is only so-so and the package itself held only the disc with no liner notes at all. All of this makes me cock an eyebrow at the $27 list price of the disc, but the quality of the film itself has me going back and forth. The film is a must-see, but I can't say that this particular disc is a must-own yet. If Columbia opts to do a high-def restoration and cleanup on this film, I'll be first in line to buy my copy on release day. Until then, I'll recommend that anyone pick up a copy at their library or through Netflix immediately, and to save their money until a better edition is released. Seeing the film can't wait, but owning it probably can.

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