Back in the late 1930′s, when our great-grand-parents were coming of age and discovering sex and politics (most assuredly in that order but I have no way to verify) populist film director Frank Capra brought forth the great grandfather of all political films. The title was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It starred Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, and what was billed, at the time, as the greatest cast of supporting actors ever. The film garnered 11 Oscar Nominations but won only one Oscar.
A film adapted from a popular novel by Margaret Mitchell, called Gone With the Wind, walked off with most of the gold that year including Best Picture.
However Mr. Smith was a brilliant film – Jimmy Stewart played Jefferson Smith who was appointed as a compromise by the governor of an unnamed western state to replace a Senator who had just passed on. Smith was appointed because the sitting governor couldn’t abide the political boss’s handpicked stooge and he had to worry about his own re-election so he couldn’t name a popular reformer because that would piss off his bosses. So, the middle of the road type, read as unknown, Jefferson Smith is appointed to the Senate vacancy because he was naive, inexperienced, an idealist, and yet could be (they assumed) easily manipulated.
Mr. Smith turned out to be a film that stood Washington on its head. While it is an inspirational and feel good story of the highest caliber, the Washington Press Corps and the US Congress reviled the film because of its portrayal of the corruption and venality in those hallowed halls of the American Government. The Senators and Congressmen didn’t much care for the fact that they came off looking like a bunch of crooks at worst, or a bunch of hogs at the trough at best.
So with a film like that one, symbolizing one of the major roots of political drama in cinema, we can look back and take note of some of the off-springs of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, beginning with Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972), Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All The President’s Men (1976), Joan Allen in The Contender (2000), and of course, The American President (1995) which was directed by Rob Reiner and starred Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. These films made statements about the life and times of American politics and its natural bedfellow – the press.