The name Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is a rather hollow gimmick, but the story this documentary tells is still compelling. Raising a question based on Frank Capra’s seminal Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the film follows a different Jeff Smith, a young 29-year-old with no experience in public office, running for United States Congress against a man with a name well-known in Missouri politics.
And though the question isn’t perfect–after all, Capra’s Mr. Smith got to Washington on little more than a fluke–it is an interesting one. This Mr. Smith is hardly Jimmy Stewart. He’s short, speaks with a slight lisp, and hardly has Mr. Stewart’s famously earnest looks. Nonetheless, he makes a compelling and credible run for a national office that no one–not even his own grandmother–thought he had the slightest chance at winning.
Mr. Smith shares many features with 2005’s oft-overlooked Street Fight. Like Street Fight, a young idealist who doesn’t know his own limitations is pitted off against the “establishment candidate” who has a much longer political history. And, in a turn that phases few of America’s millions of cynics, loses the election–though by closer margins than many expected.
But both Jeff Smith and Street Fight‘s Cory Booker are men you (at least if you share their values) can’t help rooting for. The fact that they have the audacity to do what they’re doing is the only uplifting story that these movies need. Seeing these young men work so tirelessly and certainly, at the end of the movie you find that even against your own knowledge that they did in fact lose, you’re rooting and hoping and imagining that these young hopeful men will prevail.
And though it is easy to be depressed seeing these irrepressible underdogs defeated, the story in neither Mr. Smith nor Street Fight points in that direction. Cory Booker, defeated by the experienced Sharpe James in 2002, became Newark’s mayor in 2006. And Jeff Smith, reaching for slightly nearer fruit, is now serving in Missouri’s state Senate.
Both men are a testament to possibility that a young idealist, even if failing their high goals, can still garner high levels of attention and support with enough energy and will. They encourage, as Mr. Capra’s much-loved and loathed film did, that Americans realize their power to make a difference and take advantage of it.
As a story, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? can be confusing. It uses footage from late in the story to illustrate a point needed earlier. Some important players in the story aren’t seen much, if at all. The story of Smith’s main opponent, Russ Carnahan, is told primarily, though not exclusively, by members of Smith’s campaign or would-be fans.
However, these minor issues pale in comparison to the wonderfully surprising story and it’s message. This Mr. Smith is hardly as tightly hopeful as its predecessor, but it’s just as worthy of both love and hate.