The movie Advise and Consent is about exactly what the title says: the U.S. Senate’s power to “advise and consent” on a presidential appointment to a certain administrative position. This process and the general proceedings of at least state-level government have become all too familiar to me in the last two years as I have been a reporter covering state government. I have seen the Ohio Senate use its advise and consent power to essentially fire someone who had been doing a job for many months but because of a scandal, the pick by a Democratic governor was not longer fit in the eyes of the Republican Senate. I, too, have been watching from afar as the U.S. Senate presently stalls on approving an Ohioan picked by President Obama to direct a new consumer protection bureau because lawmakers do not like the agency itself.
So even though Otto Preminger‘s Advise and Consent takes place 50 years ago, the procedure still seems a bit like I was sitting at work, yet that did not negate its impact. In this fictional account, a president, played by an older Franchot Tone, has selected Henry Fonda‘s Robert Leffingwell to be his secretary of state. The selection raises much turmoil as Leffingwell has made a handful of enemies in the Senate, chief among which is Charles Laughton‘s Sen. Cooley. A special committee is formed to consider the appointment and is chaired by young Sen. Anderson (Don Murray). During the hearing, Cooley sits in and berates Leffingwell with questions about his involvement in a communist group while a college professor. He even brings in a witness who testifies that he saw Leffingwell at these meetings, but the appointee fires back by questioning the witness into admitting he had a mental breakdown in the past and indicating the address of these supposed Red meetings is actually a fire station.
Things get hairy, however, when Cooley starts digging into this new evidence and Chairman Anderson’s wife receives threatening phone calls. The chairman is being blackmailed into pushing the approval ahead and his fate is to be a bleak one. As the story progresses, it is nearly impossible to determine from one minute to the next whether Leffingwell will be confirmed as SOS.
The plot of Advise and Consent is packed full of heated exchanges. It’s 140 minutes are filled to the brim with a wide smattering of characters that are, frankly, difficult to keep track. Unlike other Congressional movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, much of the drama takes place away from the Senate floor. In fact, it is interesting to view how government works, with a majority of empty seats in the chamber when much of its business takes place. It is easy to pick protagonists and villains, although they are not all from the same party nor even on the same side of the argument as it pertains to Leffingwell. I am not sure Preminger’s telling of the story either glorifies or condemns the confirmation process for appointees but is more focused on painting the drama that could surround what is often such a quick and thoughtless process.
I think it might go without saying that the performances in Advise and Consent are superb. An older Laughton really stands out as the southern Senator who has spent more time in the chamber than probably any other in the film. He is unpleasant and unreasonable but in a way unlike all of his other villainous characters. I was surprised to see Franchot Tone’s name associated with the president role as I know him best for his plethora of light-hearted romances, but he plays an amiable –and ill– president well. His health condition prevents the character from engaging in any grandstanding speeches or getting heated over the situation, which is absolutely doable for Tone. Gene Tierney also makes a return to the screen after a seven-year hiatus for poor mental health as Washington socialite Dolly Harrison; Peter Lawford plays bachelor Sen. Smith; and Walter Pidgeon is perfect as the president’s advocate in approving the appointment, Sen. Munson.