Two of my favorite films of all time are 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, and 1976’s Network. In this age of 24 hour news networks, both pictures seem crushingly relevant to modern day concerns regarding the corruptive relationship between politics and mass media. (I accidentally wrote “mess media” before I corrected myself. Maybe I should have left the mistake in!) Yet when the time span between the two is considered, it appears that America has been suffering from these ills much longer than many want to admit. From this, it would appear that the halcyon days of integrity and honestly are an imagined smoke screen, or coping mechanism, for those among us (and I admit that I’m often guilty of this) searching for a point in time before “it all went wrong.”
Since neither film falls within the time construct I am studying here, let us instead look at what some may call a prequel, or even a first installment in this trinity of American political cinema: Frank Capra’s 1941 film, Meet John Doe. For those who are familiar with Capra’s work, the predominant themes of big government and the common man will come as no surprise. What is startling, however, are the foreshadowed strains of soulless ambition at the expense of the common good (shades of Network’s Diana Christensen), and manipulation masquerading as entertainment, like that of A Face in the Crowd’s Lonesome Rhodes. In this film, the all consuming, ever present threat of something bigger than the body politic, some “man behind the curtain” who pulls the strings and adheres to an agenda not of our making, looms above what the average person’s sightline is privy to.
Meet John Doe is billed, curiously, as a comedy/drama. But the laughs are far and few between, and those that exist germinate from a caustic sarcasm more than anything genuinely side-splitting. Surely, for box office purposes, the safe bet is to always market a film “down”, and yet the success of Meet John Doe belies the sleight of hand used to lure audiences into the theatre. Generally speaking, viewers are far more sophisticated than the PR machine gives them credit for. Thus, the irony of how this film is presented in relation to what it really is, should not be lost on us as we undertake an analysis of its content.