Yes, Mark Hay can!
This week the Senate Finance committee pushed out a neutered healthcare bill. And then thirty senators voted against a bill to block government contracts with companies that do not allow their employees to sue when raped by fellow employees. I guess last November’s hope water is wearing off, because it’s just getting harder and harder to stay optimistic. So, to give you a little political booster, here’s a list of Hope movies – the stories of a few men and a spoonful of justice standing up against injustice and illogical, greedy systems. It may not be realistic, but it’ll help to get you through another day.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The ultimate Go America! film, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington drips with the spirit of hope and change, yet it is not saccharine. The world of Mr. Smith is one of unabashed greed and corruption, one in which every force conspires not with outright malice, but with a simple acceptance against all that is good and wholesome. The American political system is broken and sick and sputtering along on graft and patronage. Too bad that’s really not much of a fantasy world.
Somewhere in this world, a junior senator dies in an accident. Now the governor, “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibber) must replace him, but with whom? His corrupt political boss wants another puppet in the senate, but the people are calling for a reformer. In a desperate snap of whim and compromise, Hopper chooses the young leader of a Boy Scouts-esque organization, the wholesome Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), in hopes that he will be a popular darling, but easily manipulable. Smith arrives in Washington, comes under the tutelage of an old family friend, Senator Paine (Claude Raines), and stumbles upon a huge graft scheme in his home state. Unmoved by the cynicism around him, Smith decides to fight the plot and becomes the brunt of a massive campaign of hatred and misinformation. Can one man, through the goodness of his character, stand against all the arrayed forces of Washington?
If you want the real answer, you may not be pleased. But if you want the fairytale answer that will restore your faith in the American government and give you a little political booster, then Mr. Smith is just what the doctor ordered. Smith is so quintessentially American that you’d think the Lord himself had sculpted him from apple pie, but he’s all the more delicious for that fact.
I hesitate in adding Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi to a list of hopeful political films. Sure, it’s the story of “the little man in the loin-cloth,” as he is once called in the film, standing up against the majesty and splendor of the British Empire – and winning. But Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) comes out of the projector not some fully formed and messianic character – a great achievement, as it is clear the filmmakers idolized the man and would have liked to have elevated him fully. But Kingsley makes such a complete transformation into Gandhi that he cannot do him the injustice of deification.
Instead, the film opens with a young and upwardly mobile Gandhi, arriving at the close of the nineteenth century in South Africa. The dapper and fashionable young man is ordered out of first class for being Indian. Gandhi refuses, stating indignantly that he always travels first class. There is a seed of nonviolent idealism and equality here, but not nearly the relatable and populist image we hold of the man. Rather, the film chronicles not just the fight of one man against the Empire, but the evolution of Gandhi from a proper and fashionable young man into a penitent seeker and eventually into a regretful holy man. Indeed, the film almost ends as a tragedy with the victory of independence marred by Muslim-Hindu violence, Pakistani secession, and Gandhi broken and old, wearing a grim face. He pushes on, but feels as if he has failed, and dies with that seed of failure within him.
But this is hopeful. That such a man, in some ways lost, can grasp onto a sound moral compass and hold firm in his goals, that despite misgivings, grief and doubt he can march strong against a hegemony – this is hopeful. This firm judgment, this constant push forwards, all from a very human character, is heartbreaking, but it is hopeful as well.
The Lives of Others (2006)
What could be more oppressive, more hopeless, closer to a real dystopia, than life behind the Iron Curtain, under Statsi surveillance? Florian Henckel con Donnersmarck’s film is a search for hope in the utter bleakness of a dysfunctional and cruel bureaucratic system. It is an ode to the power of one man and the ability of human goodness to overcome power, luxury and safety in order to confront injustice.
The story takes place in 1984, in Eastern Germany, where protagonist Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) is a Statsi Hauptmann, and an expert on surveillance and interrogation. Wiesler is tasked with surveillance on the house of an artist, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), suspected of pro-Western sympathies. Much to Wiesler’s surprise, his surveillance reveals that Dreyman is a devout communist and that the surveillance is only an attempt by the Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme), who covets Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), to shame and eliminate a romantic rival. His faith shaken, Wiesler arranges silently to have Dreyman uncover the affair between Christa-Maria and the Minister. Soon after, Dreyman, disillusioned as was Wiesler, starts to rebel against the blackballing of his pro-Western friends. He, audibly to Wiesler, decides to write a pro-Western article. And Wiesler, shattered and isolated by the failure of his beloved socialist state, decides to risk life and status to help protect his identity.
There’s something fantastic in the character of Wiesler. He is a nobody, an everyman of the Statsi. Other characters pass him by as just another part of a larger machine, just a cog. And he acts appropriately for a cog, even after he begins his shift towards a more sympathetic, anti-party view. Reconciling his humanism with his robotic shell presents a shattering crisis for him and the viewer alike. And to take such risk in such an unstable and doubting state, such a principled stance – this is just the hope tonic I’m looking for right now.
Images via IMDB.com