Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)/Dave (1993)

Directed by Frank Capra/Ivan Reitman

I happened to see Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ivan Reitman’s Dave on the same day and was stuck on the similarities between the two feel good movies.  To say they are “feel good” might be to ignore an overt ugliness and corruption of Washington DC as presented onscreen (though so too in real life), but the optimism comes in how neatly and joyously they find their conclusions.  In both movies the hero will experience his most heroic moment as he falls to the Senate floor in exhaustion, though in the latter that sacrificial moment is staged and immediately follows the character owning up to something he did but also didn’t do.

In Frank Capra’s film Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, nobly and naively kind, and plucked from out of the air to fill the hole left by a recently departed senator.  His appointment has to do with the belief that he will cause no harm and get in no one’s way.  He is chosen because he’s deemed politically impotent, and when he arrives in the nation’s capital he has no great cause and instead finds his way onto a sightseeing tour bus, enthralled by the sight of the capital’s landmarks.

Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) is similarly kind, naive and in awe of the things around him.  Because of his uncanny resemblance to fictional president Bill Mitchell (also played by Kline), Dave is selected as a body double while President Mitchell conducts an affair with his secretary.  When Mitchell then suffers a stroke that makes him comatose, Dave is convinced to stick around for a while longer to play house as the president.

He is unofficially appointed by the President’s Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) who wants to use the political imposter to wrestle control away from Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley).  As time goes on Dave’s fulfillment in his new role goes beyond the perks of sudden fame and have to do with trying to do what’s right.  Along the same lines Jefferson Smith decides not to be passive in the senate but to introduce his own bill, pushing for government funded summer camps for the country’s youth.

For Smith, his plan will go nowhere because his state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), plans to put a dam in the same plot of land for which Smith hopes to host his summer program.  The dam is a selfish endeavor which will make wealthy Paine and those closest to him.  When Smith attempts to bring up his concerns in the senate he is quickly silenced and then denounced, labeled a threat to the established order.

In Dave It’s Bob Alexander who embodies all that is wrong with the government.  He vetoes bills of his choosing, including one that would provide funding to the homeless, and when Dave confronts him Alexander points him towards their budgetary restrictions.  Dave works hard to successfully navigate the budget and keep the shelters open but Alexander remains threatened.  He deems Dave a threat simply because he can no longer be controlled.

In Dave the actions of the “President” lead to the revelation that he’s been involved in criminal activity, apparently truthfully.  It is up to Dave to then own up to “his” mistakes to help right the wrongs of the sitting administration.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Jefferson Smith filibusters until the point of physical exhaustion to point out the injustice being done to him and, thus, to the country.

Both characters fall to the ground, giving everything they had, in the name of their country’s best interests, and in a way they are both held up as Jesus-like figures who died for the audience.  The story is then bookended by sacrifices.  When Smith is pulled into the Senate he is forced to give up his old life and now to act as little more than a warm body, a puppet to those who are truly in control (and insist they’ll tell him how to vote).  For Dave he must literally disappear from his old life and his old identity to embody that of the president.  In the end his new character goes the way of the real man he’s portraying, vanishing so that Dave might return to his old life.

They die for those in power, and by the end they expose the corruption of the powerful and die for those without agency.

Up Next: River of Grass (1994), Night Moves (2013), X-Men: First Class (2011)

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