Advise & Consent (1962)
Written by Wendell Mayes
Directed by Otto Preminger
One morning the United States Senate wakes up to find the President has nominated Robert Leffingwell for Secretary of State. This is met with divisiveness in the President’s party which holds the majority in the Senate. The Majority Leader, Bob Munson is ready to vote yes to tow the party line to aid the President who has kept a terminal illness secret from the public and his party. Leffingwell is intended to preserve the President’s foreign policy legacy, something he shows no confidence in his vice president to carry out. Opposing Leffingwell is South Carolina Senator Seabright Cooley who appears to have a personal grudge against the nominee. In the same party but on a pro-demagogic peace wing is Senator Fred Van Ackerman who sees a chance to use the publicity around the hearings to boost his spotlight in the media. In the middle and attempting to navigate this complicated and controversial process is Senator Brigham Anderson, a junior member from Utah and, as his name suggests, very Mormon. Secrets are revealed, and the truth behind personal grudges and threats are more shocking than anticipated.
Advise & Consent feels like proto-Aaron Sorkin but in the best ways. Much like Sorkin’s politically angled work, this film is not about focusing on a single protagonist but instead exploring the dissenting opinions of a vast cast of characters. By the end of the film, it is hard to pin down a villain (Though Ackerman makes a strong bid for it) and instead, we see how all the characters have had full arcs, and everyone has changed in some capacity. No virtuous decisions are being made, even Munson and Anderson, the closest thing the movie has to main characters, are all about making calculated moves that serve their party. One scene does feature Anderson standing up the President after learning a devastating truth about Leffingwell. Anderson is chastised for being so moral and told this is important for the President’s agenda.
The most significant strength of Advise & Consent is its actors. The characters and dialogue as written could have ended up as the driest, bland procedural. However, the cast finds what is interesting about these people and plays those aspects up without becoming a caricature. The great Charles Laughton comes very close as Seeb Cooley, but when his character finally receives his comeuppance, we see a shift. The witty repartee of the Southern gent is a performance, an expected behavior from the body of the Senate. Cooley himself is driven by personal wounds and in the third act must face his most significant moment of humility, realizing the cost of his actions on a fellow member of the Senate.
The movie is surprisingly controversial, especially for its time. The first elements that stood out to me were the twists and turns of the Senate hearing for Leffingwell. Accusations of communist beliefs surface from Cooley, and a surprise witness is brought in. As the story unfolds, we learn the truth about these claims, and it definitely went in a direction I did not expect. Henry Fonda plays Leffingwell and eventually fades from the film, but not without his character being a significant part of the ongoing plot. The second moment involves Brig Anderson who becomes the target of blackmail when he calls off the Leffingwell hearings stalling the vote. We watch his marriage crumble, his professional relationships in the Senate, and it’s all incredibly tragic.
The production of this film is full of surprising details. Martin Luther King Jr. was offered the role of a senator from Georgia and seriously contemplated taking part. Richard Nixon, the former vice-president at the time, was offered the role of this film’s VP but turned it down due to what he said were critical errors in the writing of Senate procedure. Director Preminger also made a purposeful effort to hire actors who were blacklisted during as result of the HUAC hearings led by right-wing zealot Sen. Joe McCarthy. Burgess Meredith and Will Geer were two of the character actors placed on the list for refusing to name names. Will Geer, better known as Grandpa on the Waltons, was, in reality, a gay man who held genuinely pro-union beliefs. One of the themes in Preminger’s film, and one he walks a very fine line to avoid censorship is that “sins,” as the film calls them, are rarely that big of a deal. Holding communist beliefs, being gay, these are things the film ultimately says are not devastating aspects of a person. What is devastating is how those who “commit these sins” allow society to drive them into hiding or worse.
The broader theme of Advise & Consent revealed in the final scene is the larger meaninglessness of the entire affair. One event upends the whole conflict in the Senate over Leffingwell and leaves a blank slate from which a new agenda will be written. The senior members of the body react with a sigh and shrug, knowing this is the cycle they live within. It’s another day and another set of negotiations, deals, and grudges.