Friday, September 18, 2015
USA, 139 minutes
Director: Otto Preminger
Writers: Allen Drury, Wendell Mayes
Photography: Sam Leavitt
Music: Jerry Fielding
Editor: Louis R. Loeffler
Cast: Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray, Henry Fonda, Lew Ayres, Edward Andrews, Burgess Meredith, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, George Grizzard, Paul Ford, Peter Lawford, Inga Swenson, Will Geer, Larry Tucker, Betty White
Advise & Consent belongs to a grand American tradition of political movies, usually set in Washington, D.C., endeavoring to explicitly show how sausage gets ground into legislation and/or policy, presented in a brisk spirit of upbeat no-nonsense and glowering knowingness. Maybe it started with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or maybe Gregory La Cava's Gabriel Over the White House, or probably way before that even. The most recent example may be Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Along the way there's Meet John Doe, A Face in the Crowd, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, All the President's Men, Wag the Dog, Charlie Wilson's War, and many others—also, on TV, The West Wing.
What likely unites them most is their smug sense of realpolitik, as they otherwise wander afield among distractions such as high drama, buffoonery, and plain old shtick. Advise & Consent revels in the amiable corruptions of its early-'60s glamour cast, found wandering the sanctified halls of D.C. power. It's solid storytelling about American political intrigues, marked by shrewd and unguessable moves from all sides. The plot twist that it turns on toward the end feels remarkably fresh and contemporary, which could be happenstance—but at least it's not the only thing that makes this picture so surprising and crackling alive.
Put that more on the tony Otto Preminger production and a bunch of great performances from old hands. I don't know the source novel by Allen Drury, but perhaps the greatest piece of Advise & Consent, as indeed with so many of these political pictures, is the formal bantering language in the screenplay. These eloquent blowhards know well how to work the levers of power, hamming it up in contexts of deeply scripted protocols and procedures, with droning roll calls and vote tallies punctuating the action. In this case, the U.S. Senate's confirmation of a presidential nominee for secretary of state, one Robert Leffingwell, sets the stage. The dynamics of the confrontations told here often reminded me of the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill contretemps that blew up in 1991 at Thomas's hearings, which is only another element that makes Advise & Consent feel so vividly modern.
The star of this very considerable show is Charles Laughton, as Senator Seabright Cooley of South Carolina, a vicious, caved-in old man who is set on settling an old score with Leffingwell by scuttling his nomination, and hell be damned. Those levers of power I mentioned are presented here as mostly a matter of blackmail, extortion, and other such thinly disguised coercion, playing publicly at the same time to all lowest common denominators available, the moves and countermoves traded back and forth almost equally by both sides. It's sickening, as intended, though unfortunately puts on a brave face toward the end. The implication is that where the line between dirty politics and movie magic really lies is anyone's guess. In other words, never mind, folks, all part of the show.
But what a show. The story lurches and gyrates in different and unexpected directions, and the pace is steady rapid-fire. It's a long movie but it happens fast. Laughton is great, but playing nearly to his level with deceptive ease are Walter Pidgeon as the Senate Majority Leader, Lew Ayres as the Vice President, Henry Fonda as Leffingwell, and Burgess Meredith as the man who would take Leffingwell down, branding him "a communist"—interesting, always, to see the power the word itself wields, in those times and these. Franchot Tone, who played the president's secretary in 1933's Gabriel Over the White House, here grows up to play the president. Scattered all about beyond that are passels of D.C. types, ambitious young senators, bumptious press, wives and girlfriends, foreign dignitaries, even night watchmen. It feels well observed and everyone involved is obviously having a great time. In case you need me to tell you, I should mention that it's almost exclusively about straight white men.
Oddly, the politics, which feel authentically intricate, often read as insanely mixed-up in the context of our present-day landscape, which occasionally sidetracked me. George Grizzard plays Senator Fred Van Ackerman, for example, a firebrand liberal in the mold of Robert Kennedy—but from Wyoming, which elected Dick Cheney to Congress. A senator from Kansas is a woman (and it's Betty White, in her first film appearance). A senator from Utah is the one with the lurid secret (well, I guess Larry Craig is from Idaho, so there's that). Cooley at least is something of a recognizable Dixiecrat, from South Carolina. Still, sorting out what was real in 1962 from what was fanciful (a prominent disclaimer up front reminds us it's all "fiction") can get to be a real head scratcher.
As for the main ideas about American politics motivating so many of these pictures, including Advise & Consent, I'm less than sanguine about the supreme optimism. One of the best parts of Advise & Consent, in spite of the rote triumphalism that creeps in toward the end, is that it's sly enough to fit either viewpoint. Things really do come to a satisfying conclusion here—hooray for us and our system! At the same time, the worst reprobates pay little for their sins, getting out of them by sacrificing the callow and inexperienced to an easily manipulated public appetite for what was once called, in yet another era that this picture reminds me of, the politics of personal destruction. So nothing changes either. This must be what they mean by the worst system of government ever invented, except for all the others.