Monday, July 14, 2008

Mr Smith Goes to Washington

I just watched, for the fourth time since the sixth grade, Mr Smith goes to Washington. I keep forgetting, in the years' intervals between each time I see it, how powerful it really is. To some fans of the cinema classic, it's the feeling a feeling of patriotism and pride that makes this film such a stirring one. As a Canadian who is usually not moved much by nationalistic jingo, let alone that of another nation, it's something else in Frank Capra's masterpiece that literally brings me to tears at the climactic scene.... That doesn't happen very often.

Mr Smith goes to Washington is the story of Jefferson Smith, an idealistic man - he barely looks thirty - who is selected as an honourary appointment to the U.S. Senate to replace the sitting senator who had died the previous day. The men pulling the strings behind his appointment are businessmen, congressman, and fellow senators in the pocket of a corrupt James Taylor (not the singing one), a ruthless businessman who controlls half the commercial interests in Smith's home state. Smith, the state head of the Boy Rangers is the image of naïve idealism personified; he quotes Jefferson from memory, talks nonstop about the beauty of the American midwest; and gets lost - literally lost - in awe of his first sight of Washington, DC.

He's selected because he's so young and idealistic that he seems the least likely candidate to derail a Senate Deficiency Bill that includes the construction of a dam for the personal profit of Taylor. He's mentored by senator Joe Paine, who is from the same state and was a close friend of his father's before the elder Smith was murdered for daring to challenge a mining company's right to force homesteaders off of their land.

Back then, Joe Paine and Smith's father were a lawyer and newspaper editor who championed lost causes. Yet after seeing his friend killed, and eventually entering politics, Paine allowed himself to be bought out, and became part of Taylor's machine.

The conflict comes to a head when Smith, eager to accomplish something during his short term in the senate, proposes a national boys' camp for inner-city youth - on the exact site where the dam was meant to be built. When his bill comes into conflict with the proposed dam in the deficiency bill, Smith starts to ask questions and discovers the graft scheme.

When Smith refuses to be bought out, Paine disgraces him on the senate floor and accuses Smith of proposing his boys' camp bill for his own personal profit. The Taylor machine forge documents to substantiate the charge, and the process to expel Smith from the senate is started.

In an act of desperation, Smith seizes the floor and fillibusters the entire senate; as long as Smith does not sit down or cease talking, he cannot be forced to yield the floor of the senate. With Taylor's newspapers convincing their home state of Smith's corruption, Smith refuses to budge from the senate floor until his legs give out.

"You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place."

It really is as cheesy as it sounds. But this movie came out in 1939, before every storyline had become a trite cliche. It's not about patriotism, or idealism, or the sanctity of one nation's legislature; it's about the courage of the few men who face the impossible with no hope of success, who stand by their principles with every ounce of strength that they have. It's not just about politics or civil rights; it's about the things that matter to us most: freedom, love, and the chance to stand up for what matters to you most. It's about having something that you care so deeply and passionately about that no bribe, threat, or certainty of failure will stop you from doing everything you can to make things the way they should be.

...On a personal note, there's a quote that I keep with me in my wallet, right behind my driver's license. I printed out a card-sized version copy and had it laminated, and it's as close to a personal prayer as I imagine an atheist could come:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Theodore Roosevelt said that in 1910, in a speech in Paris. He said this just two years before the start of the most devestating war that his nation had ever seen, about the charge of good men to stand up for what they believe in.

It's the sentiment of what Teddy said that motivated the fictional Mr. Smith, and the standard to which I seek to hold myself. Nobody did anything - righted any great wrongs, made a name for themselves, found whatever it was in life that they were searching for - by sitting in the bleachers and making commentary. The kind of people that I would seek to emulate - the kind of man I want to be - are the ones who launch themselves headfirst into the arena, and fight for what you want until you've got nothing left. And if you get tossed back into the stands, you jump right back in with every ounce of tenacity you've got.

...I haven't always made the best choices in my life so far; a colossal understatement. But when I find myself at a real crossroads in my life, and I don't know what path to take, I take that little laminated quote out of my wallet and read it. I try to stay, above all, true to myself. No matter what happens.

1 comment:

  1. Great quote from Roosevelt. And yes, "Above all, to thine own self be true."