Social Studies, American Government, U.S. Congress, Public View of Congress, Film
Students will (1) gain an understanding of the public’s perception of Congress over time as represented in film, and (2) see how film-makers depict Congress.
The four films selected to share for comparison begin with the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (released approximately 45 days after the start of World War II), then the 1972 film The Candidate, followed seven years later by The Seduction of Joe Tynan and finally the 1996 documentary A Perfect Candidate. The common theme that runs throughout the 57 years spanning the oldest film to the most recent is, in a word, “disappointment.”
Hollywood’s portrayal of our Federal lawmakers seems to validate the cynical view most Americans have about Congress. Although not used in this lesson, even the most recent (2007) film which centered on a Member of Congress (Charlie Wilson’s War) presents the viewer with mixed, at best, signals about the film’s “hero” (a hard-drinking, drug-using, womanizing Texas Democrat). Wilson as portrayed by Tom Hanks, is as much at ease navigating through the interagency intrigues of the Central Intelligence Agency as he is nude in a Las Vegas hot tub with equally non-attired strippers/escorts in the film’s opening scene. Enough said?
There is always great interest in the 1933 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Many high school juniors and seniors find Stewart’s character believable. They may also appreciate a simpler lifestyle and story line. In any event, all four films include dashed innocence or naiveté lost when faced with fundamental moral or ethical challenges. There is usually considerable discussion after a film’s viewing as to why anyone would want to enter public life. Point out the alternatives to such a position.
1. Films are viewed in class.
2. Students have “reviews” to complete and be graded. The reviews essentially ask the viewers to present basic information on the film and then to provide subjective opinion in terms of “did you enjoy the film and why?” etc.
3. Throughout the respective films, questions are often asked by students or the teacher can offer observations, particularly with the film The Candidate, to make the character development easier for the students to understand. (The political banquet/fundraiser scene in particular prompts discussion because of the many actual political personalities of the time who are shown.)
Film-based questions are reflected in quizzes and tests and lend themselves to class warm-ups in the form of journal questions.
Sample questions that are asked on assessments or in class:
Identify the subjects and their political or governmental offices.
Describe how are the subjects portrayed? (positively, negatively,neutrally) Expand as necessary.
Did you enjoy the film? Why/why not?
Did the producer/director present a clear message to the viewers?
What was the message the film sought to convey?
Did the subjects remain “true” to their morals/ethics as implied or stated at the beginning of the film?
How did the characters/subjects change and what made them change?
Besides the characters/subjects, what have you noticed in the background that has changed from today? (This could be social customs, political or governmental changes.)
What is your opinion of (insert the office feature in the film) now that you have seen this film? (Same, more positive, more negative.)
What is the relationship of this film to this class?
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Seduction of Joe Tynan
A Perfect Candidate
Adapted from “The Public’s View of Congress: A Study in Contrasts Through Film” by René M. Lafayette, Northbridge High School, Whitinsville, MA