Tom Cronin

One of the reasons we fought the American Revolution was to establish our own representative institutions to allow us to govern ourselves.

The invention and design of the U.S. Congress was a historic achievement.

Yet our aspirational U.S. Congress has always exceeded the regular workings of our actual Congress.

Why do we have such low confidence in our U.S. Congress? It is our most representative institution and the cornerstone of the American experiment, yet you couldn't get us to watch C-SPAN coverage of its proceedings even if you paid us.

Members of Congress never win Oscars, nor thankfully do they participate in All-Star competitions — but we are watching them even if we often don't like what we see. Thanks to screenwriters and documentary makers, we do have a "Reel Congress." Here are my nominees for the most educational:

1. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

This is an all-star classic. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, it stars Jimmy Stewart as an accidentally appointed U.S senator from somewhere in the midwest. Smith is a Constitution-loving patriot. He believes in the American experiment and courageously fights back against the corruption and pork-barrel deal-making he confronts both at home and in the Senate. He famously engages in a one-man filibuster to force his colleagues to remember what their responsibilities were. The film is patriotic, corny, wonderful and gives us the ultimate iconic American public servant.

2. "Advise and Consent" (1962)

Based on the best-selling novel by conservative journalist Allen Drury, this is probably the best film ever made about the U.S. Congress. The film focuses on Senate confirmation hearings of Robert Leffingwell (played by Henry Fonda). Leffingwell has been nominated for secretary of state. He ends up being defeated, in part because he lied about his past, and in part because he is viewed as not tough enough to stand up to the Soviets. The film's strength, however, is really about the different senators — who they are, how they interact with one another — and about the very human realities that influence the political and moral choices they have to make.

3. "Point of Order" (1964)

This "period-piece" documentary shines a light on U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican, Wisconsin), the most prominent and vociferous voice against communism in the 1950s. In famous hearings, he accused the State Department and the U.S. Army of employing scores of communists and communist sympathizers. This documentary captures a later hearing and the volatile set of exchanges between army brass and the senator, including the famous rebuke by Army Attorney Joseph N. Welch: "Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" The film is fascinating reminder of the emotions invoked by the "red scare" of the 1950s.

McCarthy was briefly a major force in the Republican Party and a thorn in the side of President Dwight Eisenhower. But he became an alcoholic and in 1954 he was condemned by his Senate colleagues by a 67 to 22 vote. He died in 1957.

4. "HR 6161 — An Act of Congress" (1979)

This Charles Guggenheim documentary tells the story in classic civics-book-style of how a bill gets conceived, debated, amended and eventually enacted. It features a battle between two leading Democrats in the House of Representatives, wonderfully contrasting their leadership styles and strategies. Paul G. Rogers (Democrat, Florida) a conservative on civil rights but a fighter for health measures, his nickname was "Mr. Health," had sponsored more than a dozen major bills on health-research, is a strong supporter of clean air standards. His opponent is John Dingell (Democrat, Michigan) a well-known representative from Detroit and the automobile industry. Rogers eventually prevails: HR6161 moves through committee to the full House and, with participation from President Jimmy Carter's administration, becomes the Clean Air Act of 1977. This vividly shows Congress at work — no glitz, nor entertainment, yet a valuable congressional case study.

5. "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979)

M.A.S.H. hero Alan Alda both scripted and starred in this film. Joe Tynan is an ambitious U.S. senator who is trying to balance family life and running for president. He flounders when he begins an affair with a civil-rights lobbyist (played by a young Meryl Streep), who persuades him to change his vote on a court nomination. At one point an older senator warns Tynan that after a while "we sometimes forget why we were sent here." Tynan's marriage almost falls apart, but the film ends with a Hollywood-style reconciliation and redemption. Not a great movie. Yet the conflicts described — between family, personal life and the powers and responsibilities of the office and campaigning — are not imaginary.

6. "The Contender" (2000)

A political drama about a controversial confirmation hearing for a newly nominated vice president. Ohio Sen. Laine Hanson (played by Joan Allen) has been nominated by the president (Jeff Bridges) after an unexpected vacancy occurs in the vice presidency. The Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, upset at Hanson for her liberal social policy views, and for leaving the Republican Party, sets out to derail her confirmation. He is aided by rumors that Hanson had participated in a sorority-fraternity "orgy" as a first year college student. She refuses to speak about those events and eventually the president, with some hesitation, stands by her, accusing her opponents of "sexual McCarthyism." This is a thriller, highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of Washington D.C. political culture. The Bill Clinton look-a-like president comes off well; the Congress not so well. A feisty feminist senator triumphs.

7. "Thank You for Smoking" (2006)

Based on Christopher Buckley's hilarious satirical novel, this film helps explain what lobbyists do and how they go about trying to influence public opinion and Congress. A young lobbyist, working for Big Tobacco, is charged with making sure Congress does not require the companies to admit smoking is dangerous. Buckley succeeds in making us understand the young lobbyist, and even to like him, much as we might loathe his message. Along the way, Team Tobacco as well as righteous members of Congress get skewered. The satire here is bitter — and delightfully entertaining.

8. "Ralph Nader: An Uncommon Man" (2007)

This is a Netflix biopic of consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader. Nader was a driving force behind the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, the Freedom of Information Act of 1967 and a dozen kindred progressive measures. Nader, and his volunteers, are responsible for more regulatory legislation than any member of the U.S. Congress. He began by highlighting unsafe automobiles and promoting auto safety protections — a topic that is still with us. The film shows Nader as a nonconformist who lived the life of a workaholic monk. He was a quirky loner who paradoxically allowed himself to become a regular third-party presidential candidate. He was a caustic critic of both political parties, yet he recognized he had to engage in the political process to bring about reform. This is the best case study of a crusading lobbyist who achieved more than hundreds of members of Congress.

9. "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007)

This Tom Hanks classic is based on George Crile's book about a real Charlie Wilson, a congressman from Houston, who pushed for a U.S. operation in Afghanistan in the late1980s. Funded by Congress, and implemented mostly by the CIA, the idea of the covert operation was to assist the Mujahedeen rebels fighting against Soviet occupying forces. Wilson won this war. The film is rich in humor and satire yet based on real politics. It shows a congressman and his committee colleagues collaborating with deep state colleagues in the CIA and military. Watch this movie and read Crile's fine book to believe this actually happened.

10. "Casino Jack" (2010)

This is a must-see film if you want to understand the dark side of lobbying. Jack Abramoff (played here by Kevin Spacey), was one of the most successful and best paid lobbyists in Washington D.C. A lawyer with highly regarded law firms, Abramoff had been president of the National College Republicans and later a major party fundraiser. His most famous clients were Native American tribes and their casinos. He helped them avoid federal taxes and regulations, but he overcharged them and allegedly defrauded them in the process. The film tries to capture the way lobbying works — and it is often pretty disheartening. This movie is highly critical of several members of Congress and how they collaborated in Abramoff's wheeling and dealing. This is sad to watch if you want to believe Congress is mostly made-up of the U.S. senators like Jefferson Smith of Frank Capra's imagination .

Abramoff was considered by some as the Bernie Madoff of lobbying. He was convicted, served a few years in federal prison and, amazingly, became a lobbyist again — and again violated lobbying laws.

11. "House of Cards" Season One (2013)

This Netflix classic lasted several seasons but the first year gives a bleak, cynical look at fictional South Carolina.

Congressman Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) is a House majority leader with ambitions to become a cabinet member or maybe even president. His mantra is the road to political power is "paved with hypocrisy — and casualties." For those of us who are climbing to the top of the political food chain, he says, "there can be no mercy." Underwood and his wife Claire become the ultimate political schemers — doing whatever it requires to climb the "greasy pole" of political power. Watch this to understand some of the games politicians play. Like "1984" or "The Handmaid's Tale," House of Cards is a stark cautionary tale.

12. "Confirmation" (2016)

This is an HBO dramatization of the contentious 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas for Justice of the Supreme Court. A senator named Joe Biden chairs the Judiciary Committee, sitting next to Sens. Strom Thurmond (Republican, South Carolina) and Ted Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts). Thomas is well on his way to confirmation when Professor Anita Hill is brought forward, reluctantly, and charges Thomas with prior sexual harassment. He denies it all. She contradicts him. The committee is confused and divided. Biden later apologized for how the committee treated Hill. Thomas is confirmed 52-48.

13. "The Report" (2019)

This is an intense case study of a real U.S. senate staffer David J. Jones (played in the film by Adam Driver) who devoted at least five years to reviewing classified CIA documents that summarized and justified the torture of alleged terrorists. Jones worked tirelessly, and at the risk of his life. He and a small staff group produce a detailed and scathing report. Although the CIA and the White House fought this report, a much-redacted summary was eventually released by Sen. Diane Feinstein (Democrat, California) and her colleagues. The actual report, widely referred to as "The Torture Report," is still classified.

14. "Watergate" (1974)

Congressional oversight at work.

15. "The January 6 Insurrection Hearings" (2022)

Congressional oversight again.

This Congressional Film Festival is entertaining viewing that at the same time can help us understand why representative democracy is much harder to achieve than we ever imagined.

Tom Cronin writes regularly about national and Colorado politics.

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