Sunday, July 19, 2009
Advise and Consent (1962)
By Eric Jessen 7/18/09
Frank Capra's 1939 camp classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington shaped future portrayals of politicians and the democratic system. The Hollywood formula for a successful movie about our democracy became the lovable, bumbling, wide eyed optimist from a small town who takes on money grubbing east coast Harvard suits. But 23 years later times have changed. And Advise and Consent, directed by chronically contrarian Otto Preminger, paints a new picture of our democracy. He's shown us rape in Anatomy of a Murder and drug use (with needles and mania, oh my) in The Man with the Golden Arm, always with the utmost class (by that I mean sometimes too flat). With Advise and Consent he's done it again. It's not glamorous or extremely thrilling but it's admirably blunt and honest. The politicians are not good or bad, guilty or innocent. They're noble and intelligent but they're human.
Watching Advise and Consent was an oddly fun experience of being routinely wrong on my assumptions about characters. Every time I was introduced to a character I placed him, based on his appearance and demeanor, into a Mr. Smith formula stereotype. The first character that gave me a pleasant surprise was Henry Fonda as Robert, a Secretary of State hopeful. Before the advise and consent of the Senate, Robert had to stand trial for suspicion of being a communist. Obviously I was thinking, it's Henry Fonda, he looks so trustworthy, there's no way. It turns out he dabbled in red ideology in college.
I was wrong again and again. The exuberant semi-fanatic activist Senator Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) is ironically willing to kill for world peace. The Vice President who says he's “afraid” to be President is actually the most “underrated” leader. The slick hair Senator with a hot wife from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) frequents gay bars. And the witness accusing Fonda of being red, played with the perfect desperation by Burgess Meredith, is not a lier (or lying) just crazy.
But the most rewarding, while also somewhat disappointing, assumption I made was about the McCarthy-esc Senator Seab Cooley from South Carolina, played in his last brilliant performance by Charles Laughton. Seab is a rotten, slimy, sniveling, scheming, cockroach. He persecutes Fonda only for vengeance. But in his old age, though he treasures his crotchety, fear mongering reputation, he is sadly (because I love nasty manipulative characters) exhausted and ready to bargain.
The acting and directing in Advise and Consent is fantastic. The Senators have a rare quality in movies about our democracy: the ambiguity of being ordinary people. They're just playing a roundabout, confusing game. They're good, bad, innocent, guilty, honest, lying humans. At the end I felt a little cheated. I spent 140 minutes and the movie seemed to have achieved nothing. No one won, no big important bill was passed. But then I realized that's exactly right. Advise and Consent had me tripping over my own feet in wrong assumptions and I loved it.