Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Otto Preminger's' Advise and Consent

There seems little doubt that the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is going to drive yet another reckoning in a year filled with them.  Forces on both sides lined up within an hour of her passing to stake their territory and begin what will undoubtedly be a very ugly couple of months.  It seems the ironic state of our current approach to democracy requires that politics, once entrenched, has no room for compromise.  You are either right or left.  And possibly the worst part of this polarization is that we now assume people who think differently from us do so because of a character flaw.

As a society, we have a fatal weakness: short term memory.  If we don’t remember our past then we can see neither the faults we overcame, nor the successes that offer us a path out of our current woes.  Without history as a guide, we approach every moment as though it is unique and therefore threatening.  We seek extreme answers even when counsel, moderation and, yes, compromise may open a path we can travel together.

I frequently turn to movies at times like the one we are currently living through.  I’m well aware that such a statement might sound like I’m ducking my head in the sand or, worse, trivializing the present problems.  I’m not.  Movies are historical documents.  They present the past the way its contemporaneous audience saw and lived it.  The details may be different, but the universal concerns are there.  Most important, this particular light on the past can illuminate the present by connecting the two.

There are certain political movies to which I return depending on the circumstances.  The campaigns usually find me seeking out Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts, Robert Altman’s Nashville or his series Tanner ’88.  And I can’t remember the last time I didn’t precede the convention season without watching Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man.  These, though, are about how we elect our leaders.  There are precious few movies about how these leaders actually do their job once they have been elected.

I know that for most people, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the high water mark for movies about governance.  Certainly, it’s a good one and an undeniable classic.  For me, though, its lack of ambiguity, a fundamental weapon of politicians, renders it a little toothless.  I am far more drawn to – and believe our present circumstances are better reflected in – Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent.

Based on Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Advise and Consent plays like a primer to the devious politics of the Senate.  Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) is a left-leaning intellectual and career-long public servant.  His nomination by the President (Franchot Tone) to the position of Secretary of State sets off an acrimonious and ultimately deadly battle between the conservatives and the liberals (party names are never mentioned).  Over its course, the film will lay bare the early 1960’s attitudes toward the malleability of political convictions, the “party over country” approach to governance, and the lethal mixing of blind ambition with self-righteousness.  Sadly, nothing could be more contemporary.

The Washington of Advice and Consent is a company town whose sole product is politics.  Governance, what should be that product, is rarely discussed and even more rarely considered.  Winning the confirmation battle is what counts and both sides are arrayed in full battle gear.  Only one Senator, Brig Anderson (Don Murray) acts out of conscience.  This makes him dangerous and defeating that conscience is the only thing that both sides can agree on.

All of this comes to a strikingly ironic conclusion in which it becomes fundamentally clear that the games that underpinned the debate were far more important than whether or not Leffingwell gets to serve his country.  Once these hearings end, the only response to those involved is a rush to see who can be more sanctimonious.  The sentiments expressed, though, are little more than tired aphorisms.  We know that these same politicians will be right back at each other’s throats the next morning.

Drury spent several years as a Washington political reporter.  This gave him a vantage point from which to view the manipulations of the Senate’s rules and traditions.  In Drury’s telling, the legislators are equally guilty of power worship and expediency, all willing to wade through the swamp of hypocrisy if it gets them a partisan success.  Preminger, always a fan of courtroom dramas, was as drawn to the perspective of the novel as to its judicial parallels.  The director seizes on the lack of heroes, revealing the vagaries of men who have long since given up whatever idealism may have propelled them to Washington in the first place.

Ever the showman, Preminger packs this movie with an all-star cast then uses these stars in ways that run counter to our expectations of them.  Fonda, so long the face of moral rectitude in the movies, plays a man with a past who is perfectly willing to bury it with perjury.  Murray, to this point in his career a paragon of boyish masculinity, plays a deeply closeted senator just ripe for a blackmailing colleague (George Grizzard). Walter Pidgeon who, like Fonda, was known for his smooth portrayals of good men, plays a pleasant but hard bitten realist with a penchant for expedience.  Best of all, Charles Laughton, in his final role, uses insinuating Southern charm to hide the hypocrisy of a master politician whose lust for vengeance easily trumps ethical considerations.

Oddly enough, Advise and Consent never comes across as cynical.  Preminger accomplishes this by maintaining a non-judgemental observational tone throughout.  His gracefully moving camera, long takes and rejection of close-ups allow moments to occur without being artificially inflated.  The result is that a story that could easily have been buried under melodramatic complications plays as human and real. 

Maybe this is why I always find myself returning to Advise and Consent whenever the Machiavellian intrigues in Washington begin to feel like too much.  It is good to be reminded that the people running things are not omnipotent demigods even if they have a tendency of thinking that they are.  It is also good to remember that as we face these next few difficult months we’re the ones who ultimately have the power to say those magic words:

“You’re fired!”