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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has become synonymous with the filibuster — for good reason

The 1939 movie stars Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic outsider standing on principle.

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for April 8 through 15 is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu.

Most of what Congress does has wide-reaching consequences, but isn’t terribly interesting to watch. Not so with the filibuster, which isn’t just a fun word to say; it’s also a theatrically appealing concept, some combination of grandstanding and policymaking that is interesting even if you’re not a wonk.

In brief, a filibuster is a way for senators to pause the Senate’s proceedings until 60 of their colleagues vote to end the filibuster. Filibuster usage has risen dramatically in the recent past. But there are ways to get around it.

That’s what happened this week. Senate Democrats filibustered the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and there were only 56 votes to end the filibuster. Then, the Republican majority invoked the so-called “nuclear option,” in which they changed the rules for Supreme Court confirmations by requiring a simple majority instead of 60 votes. Gorsuch was confirmed on Friday.

When most people think about filibusters, they don’t imagine them as they usually take place today — with procedural delays, or the so-called “silent filibuster,” in which the intention to filibuster is communicated to the Senate majority leader, who then simply doesn’t bring the proceedings to the floor for a vote.

That’s a far cry from the most famous big-screen filibuster, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra’s 1939 ode to the simple, unselfish American hero. Jimmy Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic Boy Ranger leader who’s appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate without stirring up too much trouble. Smith gosh-wows his way around Washington before stumbling into political corruption spearheaded by his senior colleague, Sen. Paine (Claude Rains); he then tries to come up with a way to stand up for justice with the help of Paine’s world-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The movie’s climactic scene comes right at the end, when Smith — now being framed by his colleague — stages a one-man filibuster to block an appropriations bill engineered for corrupt ends. Sweating and talking for 24 hours, reading from the Constitution, pleading for decency and the American way.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is set in the pre-C-SPAN, pre-cable news era, and it’s remarkable to imagine how a 2017 Sen. Smith-style filibuster would be covered by news and social media. (Last year’s gun control filibuster is the most recent of the more theatrical sort, and it ended after 14 hours.)

It’s also ostentatiously devoid of political party affiliations; nobody’s a Republican or a Democrat in this movie. That makes the final filibuster a great visual metaphor without party affiliation: a guy standing on his own two literal feet for his own unpopular opinion — to advocate for an outcome that poses no personal benefit to him, but points to an ideal that’s much bigger than himself — against a crowd of people who wish he’d just shut up.

If that's not hopeful, what is?

Watch the trailer for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:

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