George Clooney's latest film depicts for us the cold, cruel, and calculating side of campaign politics. In it, Ryan Gosling is an idealistic young man working for an idealized presidential candidate, and the young idealist gets buried in a scandal that makes him forevermore see the world through jaded eyes, indulging in the cynicism that plagues so many in the public sphere. The title of the film draws the mind towards the tale of Julius Caesar. He, too, was a great politician capable of doing great things for his people. Yet Caesar was also corrupt, and the corruption of this great man led an idealistic young man who loved him to betray him--Brutus. The tale of Caesar is one of a republic's dying breaths, drowned for decades in a sea of decadence, corruption, and cynicism.
Compare, then, The Ides of March with Frank Capra's timeless classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the film, Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic young man who is thrust into the midst of a scandal in the United States Senate, and overcome with grief upon learning that his idealized senior colleague, whom he saw as a mentor and friend, was actually a corrupt pawn. Mr. Smith presents to us a Senate filled with greed, deception, and vanity, with one man standing alone against a seemingly insurmountable political machine.
While both Clooney's and Capra's films depict a political system rife with corruption, there is a hugely important difference between the two. Clooney's dark and pessimistic tale brings no closure to it, and no hope; one leaves the theater with a bitter sense of disappointment and cynical contempt for our political process. It is a tragedy where everyone loses, much like the tale of Julius Caesar that the title alludes to.
Mr. Smith, though, has a far different, more lasting, and more important tone. It depicts one decent and determined common man, surrounded by petty bunch of political thugs, who nonetheless makes a difference. This is not to say that its title character, Jefferson Smith, is alone in his feelings--the people support him, and there are even members of the Senate who likely support him as well, but are yet complicit with the villains through their silence. Smith still wins in the end, though.
Perhaps this is too idealistic. Perhaps the cynical transformation of Gosling's Stephen Myers is closer to the real thing than the determined support for lost causes exhibited by Stewart's Smith. If that is the case, though, then the fault is not with our system of government, but with us. We are the government.
Many Americans over the past few years seem to see our country through the same jaded vision of The Ides of March, and are tired of it. Perhaps, then, now is the perfect time to revisit the 1939 classic, which came out just in time for Nazis, Soviets, and Fascists to all ban it for its dangerous idea. When Hitler banned American movies in France, one Parisian theater played Mr. Smith nonstop for the month leading up to the ban. Tyrants are threatened by the idea that individuals have power; mortified by the possibility that one single person has the power to change the world. The reason they fear this is because it is true: good men, armed by the truth and common decency, can do more to change the world than all the armies and propaganda of tyranny and corruption in the world combined. It just takes hard determination in face of the harshest adversity.
Though our nation appears full of the broken hope in politics given to us in The Ides of March, we still have the ability to ensure that we remain a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is within our grasp if only we have a rebirth of understanding our good old American principles, a support for our constitutional institutions, and a renewed emphasis on the importance of the individual. Then, if we are lucky, perhaps we can also find a Mr. Smith or two to send to Washington in order to remind them of these things too. "Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!"