Monday, October 27, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - Advise and Consent

As we begin this last full week of what Jon Stewart has called the "Long, Flat Seemingly Endless Bataan Death March to the White House," we're going to look today at a film that was made 46 years ago, but which feels very familiar in our current political climate. Advise and Consent is possibly the best political movie ever made, in that it deals specifically with the monster of politics and not just characters who happen to live in that world.

Advise and Consent

We start with the fictional President announcing his choice for a new Secretary of State, Robert Leffingwell (played by Henry Fonda). This simple act prompts an immediate chain reaction of phone calls and personal visits amongst members of the Senate as they get to work on the politics of the confirmation of this choice. Leading the campaign to help get the President's choice confirmed is Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon). Leading the opposition to the confirmation is the senior Senator from South Carolina, Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton, in his final film role), who might have been a prototype for the likes of Jesse Helms. Though he affiliates with the same political party as the President, Cooley is nursing a grudge against him, and he is determined to thwart the confirmation, though he also has genuine philosophical reasons for doing so.

A sub-committee must be assembled to handle the confirmation, and Munson knows that they can't make it look too obviously friendly for Leffingwell. Despite the machinations of an ambitious, pro-Leffingwell junior Senator named Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) who desperately wants to head up the committee, Munson chooses instead an idealistic but tough young Senator from Utah, Brig Anderson (Don Murray), who Munson is sure can handle Cooley. Cooley dredges up someone from Leffingwell's past, who claims that many years ago, Leffingwell was a member of a Communist cell. Leffingwell discredits the witness, but has to lie to do it, and despite telling the President about this lie and asking to have his name withdrawn (since withdrawing himself would be basically an admission of guilt), the President is determined to have him confirmed.

Cooley sniffs out the truth and word gets to the head of the sub-committee, Anderson. Anderson is pressured by the President and by mysterious phone calls to push the vote through immediately, but he stands his ground. For a time, that is. When Van Ackerman leads a nasty series of threats to expose a homosexual relationship in Anderson's past, Anderson turns out to be not as tough as he needed to be or far tougher, depending on how you look at it. He is found dead, from what is deemed a suicide, in his Senate office.

"Advice and Consent" are pretty words from the Constitution, but this film is about the ugliness behind them. They're a heightened reality, to be sure, and I don't know if I like the lurid implications of the "gay" angle (especially considering that the character of Brig is clearly a Mormon, though that is never stated in the film), but much of it is pretty much how I imagine it works. And I'm not sure if that's a good thing. :)

Fun stuff: LOADS of fun stuff, given current political items. This may well be the only Hollywood film that clearly defines and demonstrates the role of the Vice President with regard to the Senate. I'd send a copy of this to Sarah Palin, but 1)it might be considered rude, and 2)well, I'm hoping against hope she won't need it. A couple of women explain the VP's role in the Senate to an ambassador's wife, and it would seem like superfluous exposition, except that we need to know this information for the last scene.


There's quite a bit of discussion on "appeasement" during Leffingwell's confirmation. I kept waiting for Chris Matthews to show up and ask everyone what Neville Chamberlain did to appease Germany at Munich. :D


The title sequence was done by Saul Bass. As in Rankin-Bass (the guys who brought us the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other childhood favorites). He did several other notable title sequences, including Psycho, North By Northwest and The Man With the Golden Arm.

No YouTube clips, I'm afraid, except the aforementioned title sequence, and nothing that's embeddable. Here is the only scene I could find online that gives the best idea of what the movie is about.

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