Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

“All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them; because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’… And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other. Yes, you even die for them.”– Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

For several years now, I’ve wanted to revisit Frank Capra’s classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” with James Stewart as a small-town idealist who is appointed to the U.S. Senate as a puppet for a corrupt political machine just expecting him to hold a seat and keep his mouth shut during the business as usual carrying on in Washington. But when an obvious bit of “graft” (we know it now as pork) gets in the way of a pet project this Boy Ranger leader has to place a National Boys camp in his home state, Smith has to take a stand against the status quo and a machine looking to bury him through slander and falsities. At the time of its’ release, Washington insiders denounced the film, saying they were “angry at its allegations of corruption.” Watching it now, it would appear that not much has changed.

Capra’s approach in his films- at least here and in “It’s a Wonderful Life”- was to take the side of the underdog, the improbable David who takes on his story’s Goliath, in this case, a mode of thinking that makes it acceptable to pad your pockets deep down while, on the surface, having the People’s interests at heart. In “Mr. Smith,” a relief bill (this was made in 1939 in the middle of the Great Depression) has hidden in it a provision for a dam meant to serve the interests of political boss James Taylor, who has the state’s senior senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, from “Casablanca” and “Notorious”) in his pocket, and a guarantee of 20 years in office for Smith if he plays along. Smith refuses, and in the face of a smear campaign that has him on the brink of being kicked out of the Senate, and with a little street smart coaching by his world-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith prevails by finding a way to hold the floor for the time-honored tradition of the filibuster, and eventually get his cynical fellow Senators to wake up to the corruption that has robbed this Democracy of some of its’ greatest values.

Inspired by the most thought-provoking presidential campaign in a generation, I finally rewatched Capra’s film, and it’s become a head-long favorite of mine. Of course, part of that is my weakness for a good old underdog story, but on top of that, the idealism in Stewart’s Smith is inspiring to me. He still believes in the fundamental values of this country, and even has a hard time convincing Saunders otherwise when- seemingly licked by the powers that be, his head down at the Lincoln Memorial- he looks ready to give up and go home. But he buckles under, gets that fire for the fundamental values that had shaped him lit again, and is ready to fight for what he believes in, in a way against the status quo. Having my own fire lit through months of self-discovery recently, well, I kind of identify with him. And so he fights the establishment by simply staying true to himself. In the end, his loyalty to himself wins out, and a classic American story has been spun by a master storyteller.

Watching the film again, I couldn’t help but think of Barack Obama, and as this campaign has gone on, the parallels between Smith and Obama- the subject of a recent article here– have become even clearer. Perhaps it’s clouding my judgement on the film, but I don’t think so- Capra’s film is the real deal. And after months of watching coverage, speeches, debates, and reading articles, I’m convinced of the same being true of Obama.

My left-leaning politics shouldn’t really be news to any of my faithful readers, which is why- when I recently wrote Michael Moore about my review of his film “Slacker Uprising” and shared some of my political views and recent actions with him (copying in my movie review email list in what later felt like a mistake)- a reply email by a beloved family member accusing me of being a “damn socialist” jarred me so much. My appreciation of Moore’s films- many of which have been reviewed on this site, and landed on my yearly 10-best lists- is well-documented, as is my criticism of the Bush administration. And when I hear John McCain speak, be it in the debates to soundbites played on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” to his convention acceptance speech, it sounds like the same old same old from the Republican playbook. Maybe it’s not exactly Dubya, term III, as many people say, but it’s too close for comfort to take a chance on. And don’t get me wrong, having Tina Fey lookalike Sarah Palin on the ticket- who seems even more evasive about the issues than Bush, if that’s even possible- is not helping his cause much either (although it has offered the real Fey a sensational amount of comic material to play with on SNL- Obama should’ve rescheduled his appearance on the show, and done an opening where he holds a mock press conference saying he’s dropping Biden as his running mate for Tina Fey).

Yes, I’ve voted Democrat in every election I’ve been able to vote in, but I haven’t just gone through the motions this year in making my decisions. Articles have been read (both pro- and anti-Obama). Debates have been watched. Speeches have been viewed on YouTube. And here’s where those experiences have led me this year in my choice:

=First and foremost, Obama appears Presidential. He just feels right in the role of Commander and Chief. And after the last eight years, we need someone who is a statesman, and someone who will restore our standing in the world as a country to be respected. Bush has made this a challenge for either candidate, but I feel like all Obama will have to do is make it through his Inauguration alive, and by the time he’s done with that first address after Supreme Court Justice John Roberts swears him in, he’ll have already taken the first step in restoring American credibility after eight years of mistakes.

=When discussing the recent economic collapse, while neither candidate provides detailed plans on how to handle the crisis, Obama seems to have at least put the thought into the issue. When McCain has addressed it, it’s either to spout the tried-and-true GOP boogieman talking points of the “tax and spend” Democrats (ironic since the recent GOP-run government has spent more than any other one in history, leaving either candidate with an insurmountable debt to payoff), to try and play catch-up with Obama without really committing to any policies, or to take grand measures towards APPEARING presidental (namely, his grandstanding “suspension” of his campaign back in September) when the polls have him behind.

=While Obama isn’t entirely clean on the “negative campaigning” front (the ad about how McCain couldn’t even send an email was going a bit too far), that’s still kids play compared to the campaign McCain/Palin (ironically, employing many of the same aides and strategists who knocked McCain out of the race in 2000) has run against him. The reinforcements of false beliefs about Obama by not calling out aides who use his middle name Hussein. The William Ayers business (OMG, he had a terrorist in his family’s house when he was 8! What atrocities was he planning?), which might have had some legitimacy had Ayers not become a professor who’s worked with both sides of the aisle on education reform. Neither McCain nor Palin doing more to silence and avoid the angry and derogatory slurs against Obama at their rallies, which have opened up fresh wounds of this country’s divided past. McCain is to be commended for at least keeping to his word to leave out discussions of Obama’s controversial former preacher, Rev. Wright…even if his party couldn’t help themselves this past week bringing the cat out of the bag in mailings and ads.

A thought about that last part, however. I wondered recently about whether McCain stuck by this because maybe he so admired Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech on race during the primaries, which essentially put the issue to bed with the media. Food for thought. Given the substantial power of that speech, which also illuminates a humility in Obama we hadn’t previously seen (and certainly haven’t seen from Republicans these past eight years), it’s not hard to imagine.

=For all his Harvard-bred intellect and oratory flair (best on display at his convention speech, which sealed the deal for me, at least), Obama- and his running mate Joe Biden- still seem like one of us. They know what hard times are about, and their personal stories have informed the people they are today without haunting them. McCain seems continually haunted by his experience in Vietnam (not to question the honor it allows him), and feels like just another politician, while Palin- for all her “small town” appeal- seems exactly like Bush- a privileged individual who carries herself with a chip on her shoulder. In other words, like most other GOP politicos- they feel better than us. I can’t say the same for Obama and Biden.

=His stance on Iraq. Of all of the issues that have come into the fore this year and the past eight, this is the only one in which McCain has remained consistent (the Bush tax cuts, abortion, gay marriage, the evangelical right (once called “agents of intolerance”), and immigration have all seen about-faces by him in an attempt to shore up the GOP base that hasn’t trusted him in the past). This means being in lock-step with Bush. In this case, they are one in the same. Yes John, the surge worked quell the violence. Now it’s time to give Iraq over to Iraq, get our brave soldiers out, and either send them to other places with more pressing issues (like Afghanistan, which has become as destabilized as Iraq was, and- if Bin Laden is truly there- Pakistan to take out the rest of Al Qaeda; strong and concentrated diplomacy can probably get through to Iran, North Korea, and Russia). Obama is focused on doing both; McCain is focused on continuing a political folly until victory is achieved. Victory in Iraq will not happen until the country can govern itself and can be considered a strong political ally in the region…that won’t happen until we give them the diplomatic support to do so. Us remaining their as a fighting force is only prolonging the resistance.

Now, I’m not so naive as Jefferson Smith was in Capra’s film. It’s possible that Obama will change course, and- driven by a larger congressional majority- look more for political revenge on the GOP for their transgressions of the past eight years than keeping to his campaign promises. It’s possible he won’t be able to wean us completely off of foreign oil in ten years, as he claimed in his convention speech. It’s possible he could raise taxes as a way of trying to fix our broken economy and trying to figure out our insane line of debt. It’s possible nothing will change in the next four years if he’s elected.

Here’s what I do know. What I do know is that no one could have imagined that- 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and 45 years after Kennedy’s assassination (Kennedy being a “once-in-a-generation” political figure Obama’s been compared to)- we’d be on the eve of an election where an African American not only had a chance of being elected president but has been AHEAD in the polls for much of the past six weeks leading up to Election Day. I do know that I can’t think of another political figure that has gotten my generation (and below) of voters so interested in the political process; I can’t imagine anything less than record turnout by young voters when it’s all said and done. And I can’t think of any other political figure I’ve been so passionate to stand up for, going so far as donating to his campaign, and having the obligatory political magnet on my newly-purchased truck. From 1996- when I turned 18 and voted for the first time- through to 2004, my vote was less for individual candidates than it was for against the people they were running against, from Bob Dole to George W. Bush. This year, when I vote tomorrow, my vote isn’t against Barack Obama’s opponent; it’s for him, and that’s something new for me.

My goal with this essay isn’t to get you to vote my way but to tell you why I’m voting the way I am. We live in a free country that allows individuals to make up their own minds about what’s important to them, and allows them a voice to make their choices heard every other year on the first Tuesday in November. My father’s voting for McCain, as are very good friends of mine. They have their reasons, and they’re entitled to them. These are mine for voting for Obama. Because like Jefferson Smith before him, he sees a country that’s been broken by corruption and cynicism more driven by division over unification. Smith still believes in the fabric of this country as laid down by our Founding Fathers. By being on the cusp of a historic election day, Obama is not far from not only reinvigorating the integrity and ideals they laid out, but forever making the division of rights Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the rest of them were blind to back then truly a thing of the past.

Win or lose, Obama has inspired me in so many ways that have made me a better person. He’s also inspired me to put my money where my mouth is, and stand up for what I believe in.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

Films That Have Shaped Brian’s Political Views:
“Slacker Uprising”
“Standard Operating Procedure”
“There Will Be Blood”
“Lions for Lambs”
“The Kingdom”
“Jesus Camp”
“World Trade Center”
“United 93”
“Fahrenheit 9/11”
“Bowling for Columbine”
“American History X”
“Schindler’s List”
“The Last Temptation of Christ”

Categories: News, News - General

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