We’re going to have to go to some older movies, made when America was more celebrated than bashed. Once the 70’s came along, the Hollywood flavor of the decade was to disparage American life in especially cynical ways. By the 80’s, films were more about the individual, and Hollywood left the acidity of the 70’s behind. Since then, popular culture as force-fed to us by entertainment corporations has been an attempt to top the shock of the last Disney-child-star-gone-rogue.
Now I sound like the cynic. A population gets the culture they choose. Let’s choose to discuss a more excellent way.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
In movie after movie, director Frank Capra lauded the common man. He was a populist and believed democracy could correct the corruption inherent in politics and wealth. His shining example of this is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
James Stewart in a tour de force performance gives the perfect aw-shucks common man in Jefferson Smith, a character who has the temerity to believe in the Constitutional system of the United States. Mr. Smith gets a wide awakening once he’s appointed to the Senate by a corrupt governor. The political machine in Mr. Smith’s state figures they could count on Jefferson as their patsy.
Pity them; into their equation they had not calculated Mr. Smith’s moral compass.
But our hero’s sense of rightness is not enough by itself. He would have been beat but good except that his faith had already shaken away the cynicism from his secretary Saunders, played beautifully by Jean Arthur.
The final scene on the floor of the Senate is iconic.
I could lapse into my own cynicism and say this movie is indeed a fantasy in that it portrays that most mythical of creatures, an honest politician. But this 4th let’s not play that game. Watch this movie and celebrate what Congress was meant to be: A functioning institution even in its dysfunction.
The Talk of the Town
Director George Stevens turns to the Supreme Court and the American justice system in this movie.
Cary Grant (and need I say more as a recommendation?) plays fugitive Leopold Dilg running from being framed for arson and murder. Jean Arthur (a theme in herself) plays Nora, his abettor, who has rented her country house for the summer to a law professor, portrayed by Ronald Colman.
The professor happens to be a Supreme Court candidate. This is before the time the Senate filleted and fire-roasted candidates in public as they do now. (Oops, my cynicism is showing again.)
The three end up as unlikely housemates. The men wrangle civilly over the tension between the rule of law and the reality of injustice while Nora frets over an obvious impending disaster.
The Talk of the Town has the feel of a light-hearted romantic comedy, the intrigue of a murder mystery, and the thought of a treatise on democracy. It ends on the hopeful note that justice prevails in a democracy over mob rule when each man and woman fights for truth.
Both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)and The Talk of the Town (1942) were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
This Disney family movie is not a great picture. It’s slow in parts, and the acting is sub-par. But Johnny Tremain does lend a sense of what it might have felt like living in Boston at the beginning of the American Revolution.
The movie is based on the Newberry-winning novel by Esther Forbes. Both book and film put you in the thick of the Boston Tea Party, the ride of Paul Revere, and the Battle of Lexington. A viewing will remind you of the liberty our ancestors fought for and the price tag that came with such liberty.
A Rejection of an Independence Day Movie
I give you one modern movie that might surprise you coming from me, a science fiction fan. That’s Independence Day.
This sci-fi flick is packed with explosions and fighter pilots and scrappy determination. You would think this shows the true American spirit during an alien invasion.
But alas, the movie had flaws.
First, it’s boring. I could not latch on to even one character I really cared about.
Second, the White House is blown up. I do not like movies that destroy famous landmarks whether the White House, the British Houses of Parliament, or the EiffelTower. Producer Roland Emmerich must have it out for the White House – destroyed by aliens in Independence Day, toppled by aircraft carrier in 2012 and besieged in White House Down. His penchant for White House destruction is enough for the Secret Service to put him on a watch list.
I mean, those chairs in the Blue Room were purchased by President James Monroe.
Thirdly, the First Lady died in this movie. I don’t like that either. And lastly, Brent Spiner, who’s Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a bad guy. Not good.
Stick with my recommendation this 4th and revitalize your faith in the American experiment. Happy Independence Day!