“Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: ‘I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.’ Boys ought to grow up remembering that.” —Sen. Jefferson Smith
In 1939, it was not clear that the American way was the best way.
The Great Depression led reasonable people to question capitalism. Soviet communism seemed like a tantalizing alternative to some. Fascism was on the march in Europe.
In this context, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” isn’t a childish civics lesson. It’s a passionate argument that 18th Century Enlightenment values are still relevant in the turbulent 20th Century.
This is a smarter and more vital movie than I was expecting.
The story begins with a senator dying just before an important vote. Jim Taylor – the richest and most powerful man in the state – has secretly bought up a bunch of cheap land on the river. Taylor’s senatorial stooge Joseph Paine (Claude Raines) has proposed a bill that will spend millions of federal dollars to build a dam, making Taylor even richer.
All Taylor needs is for the newly appointed junior senator to play ball and back the dam. Too bad for him that the new guy is an incorruptible boy scout. Our hero is Senator Jefferson Smith (played by a very young and skinny Jimmy Stewart).
The climax is a gripping battle between good and evil. Boss Taylor and Sen. Paine are about to expel Smith from congress based on false charges. Senator Smith is outnumbered 95 to 1. But he uses the filibuster to stand up for himself and shine a spotlight on the truth.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” hardly feels dated at all. Director Frank Capra argues that there are two big problems in American politics. There are super rich guys who have way too much power behind the scenes. And these same super rich guys control the media and use the news to scandalize and destroy people who won’t submit to them.
The scene where Sen. Smith realizes that the reporters he trusted have made him look like a buffoon is priceless. Smith stares daggers up at the press booth and begins punching any reporter he can find.
Frank Capra’s argument about what makes American society great is well thought out and not obvious. America’s most essential core values are freedom and individuality, not democracy.
This is a hugely important distinction. Senator Smith was appointed, not elected. Six years earlier, German voters elected the Nazi Party in a free and fair election. In 2021, it is possible that a majority of citizens might vote to punish or expel Chinese-Americans. If you wrongly believe that democracy is more important than liberty, you might actually go along with it.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a great and important movie. Capra observes that voting is a choice; you can take it or leave it. But when you hear an American stand up and say something unusual and unpopular, you need to support her and defend her freedom of expression with all your might.