Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four Riveting Legislative Procedurals

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra, 1939

A fantasy and an allegory, to be sure, but that's what Capra was best at. The film ripples with the masculine, hardball atmosphere of the Senate. Control of the media equals control of the message, and thus public opinion, and thus and finally, the work of government itself. Also worth seeing, but mostly as a curiosity, is Tom Laughlin's remake, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Capra's film is, per the blog post title, simply riveting, whereas Laughlin's is rather limpidly-paced; Laughlin's Billy Jack is hardly the guiltless, guileless innocent that makes Capra's allegory work so well; Laughlin also unwisely injects a lot of real-world politics (and, as he does in seemingly every film, the ghastly spectre of sexual violence) into a story that's frankly not built to support them.

Advise and Consent, Preminger, 1962

Pretty much everyone in this scandalicious film is trying to hide a secret, and pretty much everyone is "guilty" of whatever they're accused of/blackmailed for. But I don't think the thrust of the film is that all politicians are dirty-- just that they're all human. The one-time communist isn't some insidious, unamerican threat to our democracy-- he's a man that made some mistakes. The homosexual-turned-self-righteous-family-man isn't a hypocrite or pervert, but a tortured soul that's afforded a high degree of tragic, moving sympathy. Like the next film on my little list, but in a very different way, it emphasizes that politics is a very personal business, driven and shaped by an individual's history and personality.

1776, Hunt, 1972

There's a twenty-five minute stretch in this musical where there's no music, in which the "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams vigorously argues in favour of American independence. More than any other film, it really captures the drama of political debate and oratory. The film also provides an in-depth look at the necessity of compromising a principle in favour of getting something accomplished: a Declaration of Independence without any mention of slavery might be a flawed document, but it's one that's going to be signed. It puts an incredible emphasis on how personalities-- a wish to stay anonymous, a desire to be well-liked, arrogance, and a sense of honour and duty-- impact political decisions more than static talking points. (Or they did, at any rate.) It communicates a sense of real fragility and danger that's been lost by the time we get to Trumbull, and it deeply humanizes its founders with more than a little salty humour. And, yes, it does all this with some really great songs.

Amazing Grace, Apted, 2006

The odd man out in our quartet, Amazing Grace is not a great film. It's still a fairly good one, in that veddy British tradition-of-quality costume-drama kind of way: it's well-mounted but doesn't have the verve of, say, The Young Victoria; the performances are strong but nothing idiosyncratic or particularly remarkable; the story is uplifting in the most generic way possible but there's no pressing need for it to be told. It sounds like I'm slagging it, but I'm not; I have a taste for the genre and style, and you probably know if you share it. If you do, you'll find some decent, arguably riveting, if slightly castrated, parliamentary manoeuvring, culminating in a bit of underhanded legislating, albeit for a good cause.