There’s one plotline in “Advise and Consent” that feels antiquated.
In order to pressure a Senator to change his vote, another Senator threatens to release proof that he had a brief fling with a fellow soldier while serving in the army.
We see the existential panic and shame on the face of the blackmailed Senator. He can’t even admit the truth to his own wife, even though the tryst happened before they met.
It’s incredible how much progress we’ve made in terms of normalizing bisexuality. If it came out that Gov. DeSantis fooled around with a comrade in Iraq, it would be tabloid news for a week and then go away. If DeSantis owned up to his bisexuality – without apology or obfuscation – I think it would probably help his campaign a bit.
While the bisexual subplot feels like an ancient history lesson, the rest of “Advise and Consent” feels fresh and relevant.
A dying President is trying to cement his legacy of restrained foreign policy by nominating Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as Secretary of State. Leffingwell is an academic, a self-proclaimed egghead, and a firm believer in diplomacy.
This pits him against Cold War hawk Dixiecrat Senator Cooley (Charles Laughton).
During the confirmation hearings, Senator Cooley accuses Leffingwell of being the kind of man who would negotiate with Soviets in good faith. The nominee proudly responds that indeed he would. Gasp! Leffingwell is immediately branded a Russian Asset. (Where do they come up with this stuff?)
Today it feels like anti-Russian fanatics outnumber peace-lovers 80% to 20% in Washington. In “Advise and Consent,” it is 50-50. The confirmation battle is going down to the wire.
To complicate things, the Vice President – who would place the tie-breaking vote – isn’t a sure thing. He’s a good-natured old codger from Delaware. He was comfortable supporting big business and hob-knobbing with DuPonts. But he fears that he doesn’t have the intellectual chops to be President. (Where do they come up with this stuff?)
The confirmation hearing gets spicier when Senator Cooley calls Leffingwell’s old college pal to the stand. He swears that they attended several Communist Party meetings together. Leffingwell categorically denies it and dismisses the witness as an unhinged looney.
So “Advise and Consent” is your usual liberal Hollywood message movie: egghead academics are good, slimy southerners are bad … Actually, not at all. The best thing about director Otto Preminger is how he takes your expectations about people and twists them.
Leffingwell is probably a good candidate for Secretary of State, but he is flat-out lying about his Communist past.
Senator Cooley is a stubborn war hawk, but he is also the smartest and most gentlemanly legislator in the film. He’s fighting for a cause he truly believes in and he always battles with restraint and good humor.
Surprisingly, the villain is Senator Van Ackerman from Wyoming: a sincere pacifist. He will do anything to make sure Leffingwell wins the vote. The young Senator is right on the substance, but his scorched-earth style of politics is abhorrent. Unlike Cooley, Van Ackerman doesn’t believe in decorum or parliamentary procedure.
Preminger asks us a timeless question: do we prefer a jerk we agree with or a gentleman with whom we can have a respectful disagreement?
“Advise and Consent” addresses several political challenges that are still relevant today. I don’t know if that is impressive or depressing. At least we made progress on the issue of bisexual acceptance. That’s something to celebrate.