Judge Maurice Cobbs finds that timely and topical subject matter coupled with engaging and controversial drama makes this film much more than just C-Span: The Movie.
"[The president] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law."—from Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution
"Was there no other man than this…this Robert A. Leffingwell? Is our storehouse of brainpower so impoverished, that for this office which can affect the destiny of our nation, of the world, there is no other man but Robert A. Leffingwell? I find that hard-indeed, even impossible-to believe…Who is disrupting the cordial flow of legislative interchange? Leffingwell. Who is turning this Senate into a cockpit of angry emotion? Leffingwell. I abominate this man Leffingwell. He is an evil man."—Seab Cooley
Facts of the Case
A political crisis is brewing. The ailing but strong-willed U.S. president (Franchot Tone, Phantom Lady) has made the most controversial nomination imaginable to fill the office of secretary of state: one Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda, Once Upon A Time In The West), an intellectual who has "more enemies in Congress than any other man in government." Leffingwell is going to be a tough sell not only to the minority leader, Warren Strickland (Will Geer, In Cold Blood), and his opposition party, but also within the deeply divided majority party. Senate Majority Leader Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon, The Shopworn Angel) and Majority Whip Stanley Danta (Paul Ford, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) are determined to support the president and line up the votes needed to push Leffingwell through as quickly as possible, but they know that the shrewd, silver-tongued senator from South Carolina and president pro tempore, Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton, The Big Clock), who harbors both personal and ideological grudges against Leffingwell, will do his Machiavellian best to keep him from high office.
Equally ardent in favor of the appointment is the ferocious junior senator from Wyoming, Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard, Happy Birthday, Wanda June), who believes that "Leffingwell is the difference between peace and war" and means to fight tooth and nail for him. Ultimately, Leffingwell's fate falls into the hands of the stringently honest and principled senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray, Escape from East Berlin), who is chosen to head the Senate subcommittee charged with vetting the nominee, where some disturbing allegations are made concerning Leffingwell's past. But when a secret from Brig's own past collides with his professional ethics, all bets are off, and the question of who can and cannot be trusted throws everything into chaos.
Lafe Smith: "Does the senior senator from South Carolina think he knows more than the president about what or who is needed, in these perilous times, in the office of secretary of state?"
Seab Cooley: "Yes, senator. I daresay that even one so young and green as the junior senator from Rhode Island would have chosen another man. Wouldn't you say that's the truth?"
Lafe Smith: "The senator assumes an infallibility of knowledge which denotes a closed mind—and an aged crust of prejudice."
Allan Drury's highly influential and incredibly successful political potboiler Advise and Consent created quite a sensation when it was published in 1959 (I believe that it still holds a record for the longest time spent on the New York Times bestseller list, at 93 weeks). Granted, you could point out that the book never achieved the critical acclaim of that other great novel of American politics, All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, but you could also point out that his story of intrigue never reached Drury's level of popular success—hey, it was required reading in my high school civics class. In any case, it would seem that a movie version of Drury's book was a fait accompli; fortunately, it was director Otto Preminger who undertook the task of bringing Drury's complex story to the silver screen. The film does lack old-school Teddy Roosevelt–style conservative flavor and the satirical edge of the novel (which features, for instance, a liberal peace organization called COMFORT—the Committee On Making Further Offers for a Russian Truce), but it is still a pretty decent translation of the book.
Advise and Consent is a movie of the type you rarely see anymore; it's very talky, moves at a languid pace, and doesn't trouble itself with pigeonholing its characters as heroes or villains. Modern audiences used to being told who to root for and who to hiss within the first five minutes of a movie may have some difficulty with Advise and Consent, but Preminger trusts the story itself to be riveting enough to hold his audience's attention. For that reason, no one actor (not even the top-billed Henry Fonda) is called on to carry the movie. You get the sense that, in Preminger's eyes, no one character is more important than another; although they may not all have equal screen time, they all get their moments in the spotlight. Still, it's hard not to feel that some actors are wasted in small roles—Gene Tierney, for instance, as a popular Washington hostess.
Although we're rather used to portrayals of governmental figures as callous puppetmasters in our post-Watergate America, the idea of a cunning and manipulative president must have been quite a sobering thought to movie audiences in 1962; while the movie's ruthlessly pragmatic president is far from being as diabolical as the one depicted in the novel, after all is said and done there still remains the question of how much he knew regarding the Brig Anderson situation. A New York Times congressional correspondent for many years, Drury based most of his characters on actual Washington figures; as the DVD cover observes, "History buffs may think they recall real-life counterparts to the characters depicted." It's not such a stretch to find parallels between the frail but strong-willed and manipulative president and FDR, or between Peter Lawford's portrayal of the handsome, womanizing bachelor Senator Lafe Smith and that actor's far more famous brother-in-law. Others will no doubt recognize doppelgangers of Joe McCarthy, Robert Taft, and Lester Hunt. Certainly there is more than a passing resemblance between Robert Leffingwell and Alger Hiss, although Leffingwell's suspected Communist affiliations are less severe than those of his real-life counterpart. Of course, Hollywood being what it is, although Leffingwell is fairly villainous in the novel-as well as (or, rather, because of) being a bona-fide card-carrying Commie (just like Alger Hiss)-he becomes a far more sympathetic character on film: a thoughtful fellow who flirted with Communism in his youth because he wanted social justice but dropped out because he wasn't willing to be a Useful Idiot. Leffingwell even has his own Whittaker Chambers to contend with, in the form of Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith, Of Mice And Men). Meredith turns in an amazing performance as the twitchy, rabbit-like, unstable Gelman, whose shaky testimony before the Senate committee paints Leffingwell as a former member of a Communist cell. Gelman's testimony, full
of loopholes and inaccuracies, is quickly refuted. But when his testimony is corroborated by another former member of that Communist cell (thanks to the machinations of Seab Cooley, dripping with sugary venom), Leffingwell's lie under oath creates far-reaching destructive ripples not only in his own personal and professional life but in the lives of everyone connected with the situation as well, right up to the president himself.
Fred Van Ackerman: "You think it's funny? You think the world thinks it's funny? You think the world thinks it's funny that the Senate is trying to smear a man who believes in peace? Do you think the people of this country think it's funny? Does the senator from Utah think it's funny? Will the senator from Utah tell us why he is blocking the committee vote? I can tell you—he is assassinating the character and reputation of Robert A. Leffingwell!"
Brig Anderson: "As chairman of the subcommittee, I seek only to do my duty…and that I will do, despite the hysterical tantrums of the senator from Wyoming. The senator is frightening no one—except, perhaps, the children in the visitors' gallery."
Still, there are those who steadfastly and stubbornly continue to support Leffingwell, like the extremely liberal junior senator from Wyoming, Fred Van Ackerman. George Grizzard plays Van Ackerman with the humorless, foaming-at-the-mouth obnoxiousness that typifies the youthful activist, and although his screen time is relatively short, his character certainly has an impact on the story, buzzing around the edges of the movie like an angry hornet with a vicious sting. Betty White (The Golden Girls), as the senator from Kansas, has far less screen time, but her sharp-tongued and witty character is nothing if not memorable as she neatly puts Van Ackerman in his place in a brief verbal skirmish.
As vitriol and vituperative rhetoric build in the Senate, Majority Leader Robert Munson rides the storm calmly and confidently. Walter Pidgeon plays him with the perfect balance of integrity and pragmatism; he's been in Washington long enough to know when and how to pick his battles, unlike the hotheaded Van Ackerman, and also long enough to know that progress sometimes requires compromise—a concept that Brig Anderson has yet to fully realize. Utah Senator Brigham Anderson finds himself trapped painfully between a rock and a hard place. While he naturally wants to support his party's nominee, his integrity will not allow him to support a man who has lied under oath at a congressional hearing; to let himself be bullied by outside forces is, in Brig's mind, a betrayal of the trust invested in him by the public. Brig is a man of rigid codes—honor, duty, family—that will not bend, and this is ultimately what will break him. Perhaps it is telling that offers of help come from the two men in the Senate who are most like Brig: the shrewd Seab Cooley, whose character is unimpeachable (whether or not you agree with his politics), and the soft-spoken, often ignored, and vastly underrated vice president of the United States, Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres)—whose self-effacing manner conceals a more powerful force than even the president could have suspected.
This film is included in the "Controversial Classics" boxed set from Warner Bros.—appropriately, since the movie has been both praised for its daring homosexual subplot and condemned for its dated portrayal of a gay bar. While it is certain that the film portrays the homosexual lifestyle with more than a little sleaze, I feel that this is done deliberately, as a way of showing how a particular character views himself rather than how the filmmaker views homosexuality. This is, of course, open to debate—but it is important to note that the character in question is always presented sympathetically, rather than as a degenerate or a freak; even his wife remains loyal to him after his long-past indiscretion has been revealed to her, and the character's ultimate fate sends the clear message that a good man has been unfairly defeated by scoundrels.
Advise and Consent represents yet another in the long line of excellent classic releases from our friends at Warner Bros.; "sharp" is perhaps not the best way to describe the transfer, given the muted and somber cinematography, but it is a clean and well-defined picture. Sound is particularly important, given the importance of dialogue in this film, and the mono track does not disappoint, giving rich, clear, resonant sound that might even be mistaken for stereo in some places. There aren't many extras; only the trailer—which is best viewed after the film, as it contains a great deal of interesting behind-the-scenes footage but also reveals far too much of the plot—and an exhaustive commentary by film historian Drew Casper. It is an informative commentary, delving into Otto Preminger's life and work with great detail, though Casper tends to drone on as if giving a familiar lecture to a class of bored students. At one point he pompously observes that "he [Preminger] was an auteur," then spells the word out for the benefit of viewers from Lower Slobbovia. Hmmmm. Casper also looks at the differences between the novel, the film, and the Broadway adaptation of the story, as well as the treatment of the homosexual themes.
"Somebody better wake up McCafferty. We need his vote."—Robert Munson
It is perhaps the height of irony that Advise and Consent should have been released on DVD when it was, as several controversial presidential appointments were debated in the news; and now, with two Supreme Court vacancies to boot, has there ever been a more timely and relevant DVD? The parallels are almost comical; it would seem, for instance, that certain senators mine most of their dialogue directly from Seab Cooley, though they don't quite deliver it with the same eloquence as Charles Laughton. It is even more comical in light of the rather ironic ending of the film…or, as it says at the end of the novel: "So they rode on, old friends from the Senate together carrying their country's hopes, while below America sped away, the kindly, pleasant, greening land about to learn whether history still had a place for a nation so strangely composed of great ideals and uneasy compromise as she."
As anyone who has ever seen Clue should be aware, Communism is just a red herring. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Historian Drew Casper
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