My Favorite Movie of All Time: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

“You’re not gonna have a country that can make these kind of rules work, if you haven’t got men that have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose.”

With the US presidential election just three days away, there’s been talk on TV and in social media about the best political films of all time. Seeing as my favorite movie of all time is a political film, it’s worth giving it its due now (though it’s always worthy of much-deserved consideration).

After a US senator from an unnamed state dies, the governor chooses an unlikely replacement to fill his seat. At his young sons’ urging, the spineless governor appoints Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), leader of the Boy Rangers (a sort of Boy Scouts), to take the position. Wide-eyed and naive, Smith ventures to the nation’s capital for the first time, where he meets and is mentored by fellow senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). When Smith learns of his mentor’s involvement in a crooked political scheme, the green senator is forced to face the reality of American politics head on. With the help of his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith learns to take a stand against corruption and in favor of true democracy.

I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the first time while I was serving in the AmeriCorps, the nation’s “domestic Peace Corps.” I was surrounded by do-gooders (myself being one) and ambitious individuals who all recognized the strength of a group of people when it joins to fight for a good cause. Likewise, we believed in the power of a single individual with a strong heart and unflinching spirit to create good in what is often perceived as an unfeeling world. I still believe all this. And this movie is a reminder that it’s all still possible.

It’s always amazing to think that a movie made in 1939 (the best year for movies, by the way) could be so relevant today. And that’s why Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a timeless film that is a must-see for any generation. It’s extremely accessible to both politically minded and non-political individuals. (I’m not political whatsoever.) The story resonates, the performances are remarkable, the conflict is very real, and the stakes are high. In the end, we’re left with a hint of hope and inspiration.

The great Frank Capra directed this film with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role. The pair collaborated multiple times, including the previous year’s release and Oscar Best Picture winner You Can’t Take It with You (which also stars Jean Arthur), as well as the 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay), but won only for its original story (a category that has since been folded into the Best Original Screenplay category). One wonders that if the film had been released any other year when the competition wasn’t so stiff (Gone with the Wind; The Wizard of OzStagecoach; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; etc.) whether it would have fared better. Still, 11 nominations is nothing to sneeze at. In addition to these accolades, the film earned a much-deserved spot on the American Film Institute’s esteemed “100 Years … 100 Movies” list, ranking as the 26th greatest American film of all time (according to the 2007 version of the list).

I highly recommend watching this American classic. It just may restore your faith in an honest, clean government. To whet your appetite, here’s a portion of the famous filibuster sequence that brings the film to an unforgettable climax.


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