Seeing the 1949 Best Picture winner 102 days into Donald Trump’s Presidency is as revealing then and now as it looks ahead to an unsettling future for America that may—in fact—become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After suffering an expected defeat in his first run for elected office because he preferred reciting facts and telling the truth, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford in the role of a lifetime) soon finds the magic dust to move the populace by eschewing his training and smarts and embracing the role of an everyman “hick.” For after all, there are generally more “hicks” in the voting booth than sophisticated electors.
A lot of Stark’s success comes by turning his enemies into supporters (with an avalanche of side deals made to bring them along…).
But he can’t do it alone. Journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland doing double duty as chief narrator and hatchet man with a [belated] conscience) happily takes $100 more a month (plus expenses) to become the Sean Spicer of the governing team and is charged with keeping a black book of transgressions big and small that will enable Stark to get his agenda of “good” through as the opposition is mowed down with fear of exposure.
The apparent love of Burden’s life, Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), is soon swept up in the aura of power and surreptitiously beds the married governor (a perfect match for Trump’s view of women) even as senior publicist Sadie Burke (Mercedes Cambridge) literally writhes in mirrored pain because she lacks killer looks and style. Anne’s brother and brilliant doctor, Adam (Shepperd Strudwick), struggles with his desire to help those without access to proper health care and a disdain for Stark’s methods of achieving his goals (only to become the Jack Ruby of his era—further anticipating the future). Uncle (and judge) Monte Stanton, appears to be the moral authority of the clan until Burden unearths a piece of mud that will become a game changer and life ender for several of the principals.
As the governor’s first term goes on, he can only accomplish his goals by threats, innuendos and bullying (yet there are more tangible results than Trump’s litany of failures thus far).
Central to the plot is an impeachment vote by the legislature after it appears that Stark may have used his influence and thugs to silence the father of a woman killed by young son Tom (then matinée idol John Derek), a hard-drinking football star who—unlike his equally boozing dad—isn’t afraid to own up to his mistakes: even from a wheelchair.
Marshalling his populace forces one last time, Stark survives the impeachment vote only to succumb to a career-ending bullet from a doctor who purposely ignores his Hippocratic oath to achieve inner closure and a modicum of justice.
If Trump has ever seen this film, he might want to re-think some of his my-way-or-the-highway tactics.
Finally, viewed in 2017, this film is too on-the-nose and predictable (there goes the judge, for example) to merit a Best Picture nod again. JWR