Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week’s film is #26 on the list: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
The final of the three Frank Capra films on the AFI Top 100 list is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film about a new, young Senator fighting against political corruption in Washington, D.C. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of another Capra classic on the list, It’s a Wonderful Life, featuring another career-defining performance from James Stewart as an endearing beacon of light in his community who stands in opposition to forces of greed and corruption which control the land he holds dear. With Mr. Smith, Capra makes a bold and distinct choice by refusing to dilute the complicated systems and language of government, painting a seemingly accurate portrait of convoluted American politics, and even refusing to patronize the audience with simplified explanations along the way. Though the film favors authenticity over accessibility, it’s not difficult to follow, because Sidney Buchman’s screenplay is more focused on character. Stewart and Jean Arthur’s performances make it easy to become invested in their battle against the powers that be, and Capra’s direction makes the film engaging and visually interesting even during long sequences in meeting rooms and Senate chambers.
Does It Belong on the List?
It may cover some of the same territory as It’s a Wonderful Life—a film I wouldn’t dare remove—but it’s also one of the most potent depictions of American politics ever put to film, and has just as much, if not more, relevance now, 81 years later, as it did back then. It definitely earns a spot on the list.