Advise and Consent is a film that takes itself, its subject and its audience very seriously. It purports to show the backroom wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the august façade of the US Senate, back when that institution was relevant, before it was taken over by its current batch of lobbyist toadies. The film features an extraordinary cast, including some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men (Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda, and Charles Laughton), sprinkled liberally with the best of the B list (Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, and a chillingly unbalanced Burgess Meredith). Even young Betty White gets into the act and her turn as a spunky Senator from Kansas is brief, but she milks every drop out of the scene.
Filmed on location in Washington DC, the film’s stagings have the tingle of authenticity, and in many ways lift the picture beyond the realm of a typical Poli-Noir potboiler. The actual Senate chamber is utilized in a few scenes, as well as the underground capital trolley, which seems to be the venue where most of the deal making is actually done - the Senators comically crowded onto the trams like an outsized golfing party too cheap to spring for a second cart. The unglamorous surroundings incite other moments of accidental humor. The sight of elegant Walter Pidgeon carrying a cafeteria tray seems cosmically wrong, like an image of Fred Astair in boxer shorts chugging a beer.
But that is the film’s only hint of lightness, as director Otto Preminger makes it quite clear that writing the nation’s laws is a grim and, as the idealistic Senator from Utah (Don Murray) is about to find out, destructive business. When the ailing POTUS (Franchot Tone) nominates an ivory tower egghead (Henry Fonda) for Secretary of State, the majority leader (Pidgeon) knows he is in for a one hell of a confirmation fight. The nomination does not sit well with Dixiecrat Senator Cooley (the delightfully smarmy Laughton), who busies himself digging up all manner of embarrassing detail from Fonda’s younger days. Despite Fonda’s flag-draped explanations, the revelations raise serious questions in the mind of committee chairman Murray who, in true Senatorial style, elects to kill the nomination by simply ignoring it.
But here the film takes a surprising twist – surprising both in terms of story and its assumption of audience sophistication – and Murray finds himself the target of pushback from Fonda’s shadowy supporters. The handsome Utah Senator has some shocking closet skeletons as well and the film is commendably frank in its depiction of the extorters and their unique lifestyles. While the true measure of Murray’s predicament is delivered in a sort of cloying code – and even that was pushing the era’s moral envelope - the disclosure must have been stunning to audiences bathed in the innocent sunlight of 1962. The film’s denouement is a bit of a let down; a little too tidy and convenient considering all the sleazy fill dirt that’s been dumped on the Capitol dome.
Advise and Consent cleverly conceals a sophisticated and streetwise story in a respect for governmental institutions that seems quite naïve today. While Walter Pidgeon may overindulge in brandy and keep secret company with an attractive widow (Gene Tierney), no one can doubt this Majority Leader’s solemn sense of duty and fair play. Laughton’s Cooley may be a sleazeball marinated in old South racism, but he isn’t willing to inflict permanent damage to the nation simply to prove an ideological point. The film features a number of tragedies, but the fact that today’s audience has little reason to find these honorable politicians believable is by far the most painful one.
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