A movie from 1939 – as good as new
This is a famous quote by Olof Palme, who was prime minister in Sweden in the 70s and 80s.
While I don’t share his political views in general, I sympathize with the idea expressed in those words. It’s not about gaming the system; it’s not about getting access to power and wealth. It’s about the urge to make a contribution, the wish make the world a little bit better than it is, and the willingness to make the sacrifices it may take to get there.
I’ve never been active in a political party myself. The closest I’ve been to political activism was when I as a 13 year old illegally occupied a house that was about to be removed in order to leave room for yet another parking house. We thought it should rather be turned into an “all activity house”, since we were struggling with the good old “we’ve got nowhere to hang around”, which most teenagers seem to run into one way or another.
I remember meeting the chairman of the community board who tried to explain to us the rules of the game and why we should go through the ordinary channels in the democratic system. But I figure it was a little bit too much to take in for an agitated punk rocker who thought that grey old men in ties were hopelessly lost and not worth the effort to bother about.
Looking back at it I think it’s a bit of a pity. All that youthful energy, all the “wanting”, could have been used better. I wonder what would have happened if I had encountered Mr Smith Goes to Washington at that point in my life. Would I have taken inspiration from the example of James Stewart’s idealistic senator Jefferson Smith, challenging the establishment from the inside? Or would I have taken the difficulties he faces as an evidence of how pointless it is to even try?
In any case – 30 years after my brief outbreak of activism, I finally got around seeing this movie. And how I fell in love with it! You can’t believe it’s over 70 years old. There is so much in it that still is relevant – especially it’s rather black view on the role of media and the PR machineries. If you’re right or not doesn’t matter. What matters is what the opinion thinks about you. You must get access to the media; you must set the agenda and put your name out there. You must get the buzz to work your way. The media landscape has obviously changed since the late 30s, with social media as a new and powerful factor. But beyond that, the questions are pretty much the same now as then.
I must admit that even if I’m a vivid fan of The West Wing, and I’ve heard Josh Lyman trying to explain all the rules for the senate and the congress, I still don’t quite get the intricate details about filibustering and how it works. But in the end it didn’t matter; the movie is just as enjoyable anyway and it walked straight into my top 100 list.
A different time
Olof Palme’s life ended as he was shot in an open street on his way home from a cinema in 1986. There were no lifeguards around him; he had sent them away. In those days Sweden was still a country where you took for granted that the prime minister could walk around in public unprotected. This was the era before the risk for suicide bombers in Europe made authorities install supervision cameras everywhere. A time when no one could imagine that an airplane one day would fly into the World Trade Centre.
Things are different now. But our need for people who want something, who believe that one person actually can make a difference, is the same.
Somewhere out there, there is still a Mr or Mrs Smith, with a pure heart, fighting for a just cause. We can only pray for that he or she can make it through the media noise.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, US, 1939) My rating: 5/5