I watched Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington again the other week. It’s never been one of my absolute favourites, but that’s hardly to say I’m immune to it. Early on, when James Stewart’s wide-eyed newly minted senator plays hooky to check out the Lincoln memorial and mists up over the Gettysburg address, and Capra all but allows the celluloid to melt in patriotic bliss, I’m just doing all I can not to fast forward. Later, after his attempt to stand up to the corrupt political machine gets him framed and shamed, he goes back to the statue bitter and disillusioned now by all the imperial hypocrisy, until Jean Arthur’s character points out a way to redemption: turn up at his expulsion hearing and play the Senate filibuster rules, holding the floor and delaying the vote, while she works the press to get out the truth and marshal public opinion behind him. Stewart’s performance in the home stretch, ranging from passionate oratory to corny charm as exhaustion overtakes him, is of course one of the cornerstones of his acting legend, and still exhilarating to watch.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Capra’s film is ultimately an emphatic validation of the system: maybe you can never entirely get rid of the special interests, but if the people elevate the right representatives, who then channel the inherent greatness of America’s core values, its pure and deep waters will always rise to swallow up the trash. It’s key to this that the Senate rules aren’t presented as the silly cookbook of self-absorbed garbage that they are, but rather as almost mystically well-balanced, holding infinite policy complexity in balance and yet occasionally allowing a necessary inspirational reboot. Based on the film’s own logic, nevertheless, it shouldn’t work – Stewart collapses of exhaustion, thus ending his stand, and it’s only through a deus ex machina that the corrupt senator cracks up at that same moment, tries to shoot himself, and blurts out the truth. The film’s underlying logic points more directly to Stewart regaining some respect and credibility through his stand, but still losing the battle for now (if not the longer-term war).
Of course, the world of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is almost infinitely simpler than our own: the political machine for example is able to effectively take over every media outlet in the state, suppressing any and all news that doesn’t fit its agenda. Our fragmented culture has problems galore, but at least seems capable of avoiding that kind of media blackout (however, as in the early and seemingly bright days of Bush’s war on terror, the media frequently blacks itself out). Capra’s film is obviously immensely simplified: timelines are condensed, events are brightly outlined; surely even in 1939 it must have been far removed from verisimilitude. But that central notion about the individual’s capacity to take on the system certainly seemed to people to embody a broader truth, and still does even today.
Can’t We Just Talk?
This is what makes the movie so depressing though, as the notion of Obama as a transformative change agent increasingly seems further and further away. All through the election I worried about this: Bush was such an obvious boob that at least those of us who despaired for America had the comfort of saying, well, he’s an idiot, of course everything’s wrong. But if Obama, seemingly as decent and progressive (and by virtue of just being there, given where he started, seemingly capable of figuring out and mastering essentially anything) were to fail, where would our hope come from after that? This, horribly, increasingly seems to be where we’re going. The terrible spectacle of Obama’s teetering health care initiative tells you a lot, but the most depressing thing to me is the apparent impossibility of conducting a sane debate. Surely everyone acknowledges on some level that things can’t go on as they are: that health care is the most urgent example of almost unlimited needs and demands straining against scary fiscal limitations. If there were any sanity to this, we’d be observing an extended public debate on trade-offs and values and choices and responsibilities. Instead, we hear about death panels and Nazis and socialism, occasionally yielding to abstract sparring about private versus public options, taxing versus spending. Capra’s crooked Senator motivated by a self-serving construction contract is chickenfeed when set against representatives whose whole ideology, untempered by much intellectual curiosity or sense of broader responsibility and crisis, will always boil everything down to a few inflexible litmus tests. Not to mention how blind party affiliation allows rabid antipathy to something over here to coexist with happy indifference to something over there, no matter that they might be factually or morally indistinguishable, if the political warfront happens to cross in between.
My point isn’t literally that we need a Jimmy Stewart (the closest thing we got to that was Ronald Reagan, which worked out a different way), but we so need someone or something to refresh and realign us. But the economic crisis should have been one of the biggest wake-up calls imaginable, and yet it changed nothing – the entire institutional and policy-making momentum seems to be not to learn and improve from it, but merely to find a way to get back to where we were, regardless that it proved itself putridly flawed. There’s no shortage of commentators to tell us this, but it’s all for nothing. So what the hell are we going to do?
Deliberately or not, the new science-fiction hit District 9 embodies much of our lost capacity for achievement. The great event we’ve long dreamed of finally happens: a spaceship full of aliens enters our orbit, and the best mankind can think to do with them is stick them in a horrible stinking settlement camp and meanwhile plunder their technology for commercial gain. Since it’s set in South Africa, and the alien camps look much the same as the black townships, it’s tempting to see some apartheid message in here, but the situation plays more as a reiteration of that history than an illumination of it (if anything even remains to be illuminated). Actually, I found myself thinking more of the current The Cove: given how we treat the dolphins, why would the aliens fare any better? The film shows all this being handled exclusively as a local problem, with no mention of the UN or other international interests, further suggesting a world that might be losing its ability to lift up its head.
Having set up this intriguing theme, and after laying down some very good initial scenes, District 9 becomes an increasingly conventional chase/conspiracy thriller, with an initially nerdy bureaucrat transforming himself into an all-action superman, happily leaping over holes in the plot. But since mankind as a whole increasingly suggests it doesn’t deserve and can’t do justice to anything other than the mediocre and the ugly, I guess that’s just fine.