It’s Up To Us

~ a short essay on a pair of American political films.

Two transcendent, final cinematic images have captured me this year.

Two films, created 52 years apart, both older than myself, resonated equally powerfully within my little, idealistic, bleeding American heart.

Their denouements, each taking place in a chamber where justice is supposed to be done — the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC and a hot, fan-laden courtroom in Louisiana, respectively — brought tears to my eyes, about seven months apart.

Jefferson Smith and Jim Garrison, two proverbial David’s facing off against the same Goliath an era apart, give their all in the form of an impassioned plea for their singular story to be heard. For some justice to be done. For something like the truth to be adopted, for a change…

Smith speaks to his colleagues in “the most powerful governing body in the world”; Garrison speaks to a jury of his peers, everymen doing their civic duty for that day.

And, they spoke to *us.*

The two directors, Frank Capra and Oliver Stone, consummate American filmmaking icons, craft their tales from the standpoint of an archetypal conflict: Man vs. State. Man versus his own home; Man versus the dream of his forefathers. ‘True believers’ finally facing the ugly face of that which they believed in. Men of Truth finding out that, sometimes, the Truth isn’t good enough.

Mr. Smith and JFK, one fictional yet *true to form* and the other based on true events yet dramatized and mythologized for cinema’s sake, are completely American stories. They deal in the backroom byzantine Machiavellianism of a superpower’s governmental system in all its terrible glory. We witness faceless agents with cloaks and daggers; we watch golden-voiced charlatans in suits wielding patriotic rhetoric. Together, doing their dirty work, they misshape bodies and reshape minds.

“Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books…”

“The Agency plays for keeps.”

These films are deconstructions of the American dream. Harsh reexaminations of the U.S. as a beacon of democracy, as a country that is fundamentally “good.” Each incendiary in their own fashion, for their own day, they are damning and revelatory and yet, in the fact that they exist as cinema, overtly hopeful in the face of such despair. They are clear-eyed criticisms of this country’s government and its priorities and how far the machinery of its power structures is willing to go to lie and do violence and destroy Men — physically or metaphysically — to protect its own material interests. They are interests which have everything to do with consolidating wealth and further power, with stealing and obfuscation and war-making and rampant capitalization amidst the bloodletting, both foreign and domestic.

They abolish the ‘American dream’ with their events yet simultaneously uphold it with their principal characters’ tear-filled eyes and choked up voices nevertheless speaking out and going strong ’til the very end.

They show how “things are really done” at the highest levels of power; they show just how damn compartmentalized a conspiracy to commit a modern coup de’tat can get, contingent less on secrets being kept than on micro-armies of nameless decentralized tertiary agents being used and “disappeared” in the same stroke, layers upon layers of escalating plausible deniability up on through the chain to real power…

~ Mr. X: “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers. Kennedy wanted to end the Cold War in his second term. He wanted to call off the moon race and cooperate with the Soviets. He signed a treaty to ban nuclear testing. He refused to invade Cuba in 1962. He set out to withdraw from Vietnam. But all that ended on the 22nd of November, 1963.
~ Senator Joseph Paine: “I know how you feel, Jeff. Thirty years ago — I had those ideals, too. I was *you*. I had to make the decision you were asked to make today. And I compromised — yes! So that all these years I could stay in that Senate — and serve the people in a thousand honest ways! You’ve got to face facts, Jeff. I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I’ve had to compromise, had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting, half the time they don’t vote, anyway. That’s how states and empires have been built since time began. Don’t you understand? Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are. Now I’ve told you all this because — well, I’ve grown very fond of you — about like a son — in fact, and I don’t want to see you get hurt. Now, when that deficiency bill comes up in the Senate tomorrow, you stay away from it. Don’t say a word. Great powers are behind it, and they’ll destroy you before you can even get started. For your own sake, Jeff, and for the sake of my friendship with your father, please, don’t say a word.”

They ask {and maybe definitively answer} the age old question:

Is the fate of every institution of Man absolute corruption?

They ask: What is one man against the iron gauntlet of naked power bearing its full fangs? A team of crackpot yet earnest lawyers with limited resources against the military-industrial complex? A Scout leader with a boyish love of the Constitution against power brokers and barons and vampires deafened by their own greed? One mortal, only armed with a few pieces of the truth, versus the unstoppable forces of industry and ideology and the immovable objects of ingrained complexes and hoarded capital.

~ [His voice very hoarse] “Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!
~ “All these documents are yours. The people’s property, you pay for it! But because the government considers you children who might be too disturbed or distressed to face this reality, or because you might possibly lynch those involved, you cannot see these documents for another seventy-five years. I’m in my early 40s, so I’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil by then, but I’m already telling my eight-year-old son to keep himself physically fit, so that one glorious September morning, in the year 2038, he can walk into the National Archives and find out what the CIA and the FBI knew! They might even push it back then, hell it may become a generational affair, with questions passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, but someday, somewhere, somebody will find out the damn truth.”

Each of these individuals, Smith and Garrison, are not trying to *save* America, in fact. That is just what their battles come to symbolize to us, the audience with a wider scope to the conflict. No, they are just trying to find one truth, solve one crime and prove it to the world. To us. It is as admirable as it should be achievable.

Yet one man fails, swiftly, and walks into the sunset, hoping to keep the fight going for another day. The other succeeds, but only in the eleventh hour and at the limits of his very consciousness, perhaps his life.

Jimmy Stewart and Kevin Costner, two classically good-looking white guys and equally talented in their own performances, play characters carrying beautiful families with them into their crusade. They wield only the purest, most compassionate and idealistic intentions. They lead these pictures with purpose, visibly wracked by the pain of their journeys through the long dark of busted faith and media assaults. They provide us with heroic faces to alight the fading fire within us concerning a hope for *goodness* out of the United States government’s institutions and agencies.

And they do it!

Give me hope, that is.

People like them {real or not} give me hope that, maybe just maybe, America can be saved. {Hah!}

These films resonated with me, they touched my heart {clearly!} This did not happen because they are anti-America, or because they posit that all politicians, generals, medias, mafiosos, right-wing extremists or that sprawling, insatiable, inhuman capitalistic interests are “evil.” No, they affected me so much, and I find them valuable cinematic achievements in their art and messaging both, because they criticize America on its own terms.

Smith and Garrison, the small teams of allies to their cause, the manifold people of modest means and big hearts that rise up to join their missions from near and far, all fight for the *right* reasons. Holding fast to “naive” idealism or not, these people, all together, are fighting out of a love for America — out of a desire to see this democratic nation, their home, held to the very standards that it purports to hold already.

That is why I cried. And that is why I cannot see Jefferson Smith and Jim Garrison as anything but heroes. Fictional or not, mythologized in their exploits and rhetoric or not, I can only see them as the truer paragons of Truth, Justice, and the American way…” As much or more than sloganeering Superman himself and his silly comic book-ass. And much more than any real American leader probably ever has been.

~ The first step toward liberation is renouncing faith in failed institutions…

From my own brand of politics, so readily aligned with these films’ cores — anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, anti-corporatist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist… I instead {try to} wield a humanistic, democratic, compassionate politics with an egalitarian vision of a global human brotherhood in international solidarity one day being manifested before us, with wars, borders, prisons, *classes* and mass unnecessary suffering abolished in every hemisphere. Or at the very least, I believe that is where we should be moving toward… {Go ahead, laugh aloud!}

Thusly, I can only concur with Costner’s words from out of a cracking voice directly to the audience at the end of JFK:

“It’s up to you.”

“Individual human beings have to create justice! And this is not easy! Because the truth often poses a threat to power. And one often has to fight power at great risk to themselves…”

No one is coming to save us. Not our leaders. Not this government. Not the military or any “national security” agency. {*shudders*} Not multinational corporations. Not technology. Not the free market. Not art, not alone. Not ideas or innovation or our innate human ingenuity, not alone. Not “peace and love.”

Not you or me. Not alone.




The people.

It is up to US.

{American or not, please watch these films!}

~ JFK (1991) credits