The U.S. Congress and the Movies

The Saturday Night Live clip above shows President Barack Obama finally having that famed shot of Kentucky bourbon with the incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. The latter is unconvincingly played by Taran Killam, but the point is clear – get a high-ranking Democrat and Republican drunk together and they might just discover what they have in common more than separates them. Congress has turned into a joke now more than ever because of its inability to fulfil the legislative part of government, but the midterm elections almost a month ago brought the hope of change, especially since Republicans no longer can afford to be seen as obstructionists when they control both chambers of Congress. With immigration reform looming as a mighty showdown between the GOP and the White House, it’s going to be an exciting time ahead.
This is a movie blog, so let’s take a look at a few films that portrayed legislative fights and how they did it:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – Obviously, a real classic in the genre. A nobody (James Stewart) is sent to Washington as a fresh senator and is taken under the wing by a crooked colleague (Claude Rains). The film doesn’t portray Democrats or Republicans, but has the hero battling an appropriations bill that contains an earmark that will directly benefit Rains. In this film, the filibuster is a tool for the hero. In our days, the filibuster has often turned into a grandstanding device that inspires little confidence. Isn’t it so, Senator Ted Cruz? But in this case, idealism wins over cynicism.
Advise & Consent (1962) – The Senate has the power to either approve or reject presidential nominations and this film portrays the devious games played in the halls of power when the President nominates a new Secretary of State (Henry Fonda) that turns out to be more liberal than expected. Democrats and Republicans are not named as such, but it’s easy to draw conclusions from the script. The film details a president’s concern about his legacy, as well as the intricacies of congressional procedures and individual members’ need to make a mark. Cynicism wins over idealism.
The American President (1995) – A romantic comedy written by Aaron Sorkin that has the President (Michael Douglas) promising an environmental activist (Annette Bening) that he’s falling in love with to support an environmental bill that she’s staked everything into. The movie contrasts the romance with realpolitik in the form of an upcoming presidential campaign where Douglas is challenged by a senator (Richard Dreyfuss). Bening’s bill comes up against an all-important crime bill… but the President changes his mind, at last. Liberals and conservatives square off clearly. Make-believe stuff where idealism wins over cynicism.

The Contender (2000) – When the Vice President dies, the President (Jeff Bridges) needs a candidate for the office and decides to break the glass ceiling by picking a female Democratic senator (Joan Allen). But a Republican senator (Gary Oldman) learns old secrets about the nominee. Not unlike Advise & Consent in its set-up, the film portrays congressional machinations but, much like The American President, its emphasis lies on executive action; it is up to the President to sort out the crisis. The villains here are both a Republican and a Democrat. Idealism wins over cynicism.

Lincoln (2012) – The only one of these films to portray actual historical events, it takes place in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) worries about the 13th Amendment and its chances of passing through both chambers of Congress. The stakes are higher than in any of the other films since the amendment concerns the freedom of liberated slaves. The film depicts how Lincoln’s men tries to sway Democratic members of the House, using bribes; this was after all a party where its Southern members supported the slave-owners. The process is not pretty, and the film shows how both cynicism and idealism win the day. 

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