What Americans Want: "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" vs "The Ides of March"

Greetings Readers,

This is Greg Kiernan again.

I hope that you all had a happy Fourth of July, and you were able to see some fireworks and eat some barbecue (not necessarily in that order).  Even as we celebrate our most patriotic holiday it is difficult to remember a time when we didn't look at our country with skepticism.  The changing attitude towards our government in the last century is noticeable not only in politics but also in film.  In the thirties it was "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington".  Today we have "The Ides of March".  Both are stories of idealists who want to make a difference in government and find themselves faced with corruption;  how they respond to it defines both their individual character and echoes the values of their era.

I decided to stay inside last night in the air conditioning  and what better way to spend that time than with a movie?  Feeling patriotic, I selected "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" - a Frank Capra classic.  It is easy to be nostalgic when watching this film; back in the days when we could believe that a bunch of cute kids were responsible for putting a young man in a Senate seat!

Mr Smith Goes To Washington

Nostalgia aside, this is a great movie with one of Jimmy Stewart's fine performances as Mr Smith.  It is about a young man's ideals getting challenged when he gets stuck in the web of Washington politics and media.  This is a movie where the idealist fights the good fight and eventually saves the day with his soul still intact.  The villain of the film is actually a man Mr. Smith admired, Senator Joseph Paine, who was also good friends with Mr. Smith's father.  In this film the once-admired man redeems himself by sacrificing his own career and siding with Mr. Smith on his political ideals.

Surprisingly, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was actually quite controversial when it was first released; many deemed it as anti-American Communist propaganda since it dealt with corrupt American government.  This kind of reception could only come from a society where corruption in the American government was considered not only atypical but un-American.  This shows not only showed how much the United States has changed but also how much we as a society have changed.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington

While "The Ides of March" isn't the same kind of film that "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is, this contemporary view of Americans in politics is still fascinating. Like Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith, Ryan Gosling plays another young idealist named Stephen Meyers working on a political campaign.  There are a few key differences between Mr. Smith and his contemporary counterpart, however. When the opposing candidate's manager (played by Paul Giamatti) asks him to join their campaign instead Stephen allows himself to be lured by the promise of success, victory, and the attentions of a twenty-year-old blonde intern.

In both films a young man's ideals are challenged, his own party turns against him, and the man he admires turns out to be less than admirable.  However Stephen Meyers does something I can't ever see Mr Smith doing; he joins the system instead of fighting it.  In a political power move, Stephen Meyers makes a deal with the corrupt elected official (played by Mr. George Clooney who never redeems himself) and continues to climb the political ladder, at the expense of his values.

The fact that this film was not met with any controversy shows that the contemporary public no longer finds political corruption, nor the temptation to sacrifice our values for success, to be controversial .  "Mr. Smith" was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winner of Best Screenplay; "Ides of March" was nominated for Best Screenplay but didn't win. Perhaps, in spite of our cynicism, we still long for a character that will fight the good fight in the face of all odds. It looks like when it comes to this country, we may see it's faults more clearly, but we still long to believe we can make a difference.

So those were my patriotic thoughts for this week.  Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you all next week.

Until then, see you in the movies!

Filed under: Byline Greg Kiernan

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