With his scathing masterpiece Advise and Consent, Otto Preminger indicts the whole Washington political machine with a great sense of subtlety and purpose. It’s one of the only Preminger’s I’ve seen, with maybe the exception of Laura, that doesn’t get bogged down at least for a while in deadly monotonous melodrama, and the end result captivates on a number of different levels.
Advise and Consent begins as a mosaic of the D.C. ecosystem, following Senators of both parties (Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon) as they prepare to debate the President’s confirmation of a new Secretary of State (Henry Fonda). Surface-level public procedure swiftly turns into back door wheeling and dealing, illuminating a brutal underbelly of devastating character assassinations, blackmail, and moral ambiguity.
But Preminger never hammers these harsh realities into stone with oratory speeches or grand actions of principle. His brilliant use of the tracking shot allows the narrative to flow along seamlessly behind the characters, one step from realization, yet unable to grasp the ramifications until it’s too late. Even though there’s one heavy in the film, the greatest villain of Advise and Consent remains the compromise of personal identity.
Both Fonda’s left-leaning nominee and Don Murray’s tragic Senator Anderson become victims when the consequences of the past come back to destroy the present. The Capital building acts as a breeding ground for these situations, an elegant bubble blocked from the rest of the world in order to keep the machine running. But the process works, or at least Preminger has faith that it does, and so the gripping finale provides a comeuppance for everyone involved. As a timely precipice on the compromises of Democracy, Advise and Consent will only become more relevant over time.