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State of the Union
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by Jay Seaver

"62 years on, nothing's changed - but that means it's still a good movie."
4 stars

Get this: In 1948, a successful businessman making a run to be the Republican Party's nominee for President against an incumbent Democrat but having to finesse his way around an extramarital affair or two was the subject of a Frank Capra film, with the candidate and his wife sympathetic characters. Really! They were played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn! And it was charmingly idealistic and kind of funny no matter which party you supported!

The would-be candidate is Grant Matthews (Tracy), a self-made millionaire in the aviation business being urged to run by his lover Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), who recently inherited her late father's newspaper empire. He's reluctant, but Washington operator Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) convinces him he's got a shot. The catch, obviously, is that it won't take the other papers long to dig up the connection between Grant and Kay, so they make sure that Grant's estranged but still loving wife Mary (Hepburn) travels with him on a cross-country speaking tour - with reporter "Spike" McManus (Van Johnson) along to serve as Kay's eyes and ears.

State of the Union is, like many Frank Capra films, a combination of cynicism and idealistic aspirations and cynical reality, with Capra and his writers (Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, from a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) not opting to use one to disguise another: The film is pretty clearly set up as a battle between the two women in his life for Grant's soul, with Mary believing he would make a good President despite his faults and Kay perhaps finding him an electable proxy for her own ambitions. It's a facile-seeming setup, perhaps, but the underlying concept rings sadly true sixty years later; it maps to a number of disappointing real-world candidates in recent decades.

For as much as State is targeting the hypocrisy of political campaigns, it does a really nice job of mixing farce and sincerity in as well. Capra and company seem to love shuffling broadly played characters in and out quickly, fully aware that not everybody needs to have an arc, and some characters are best used for a quick joke before being pushed off the stage. The filmmakers are acutely aware that there is a great overlap between the horrible and the absurd, bouncing between them frequently, but they also do a nice job of grounding it by letting the audience see the complete arc of the Matthews' relationship in miniscule - the initial attraction and admiration that gives way to them drifting apart, and (hopefully) using that to effect a reconciliation. It isn't subtle, and both the drama and can at times be awkward presented, but the intent is always sincere.

By this point, Tracy and Hepburn had worked together in several films (and been a couple off-screen for several years), so their chemistry was well-practiced by the time this movie came around. Unlike many of their collaborations, this one is clearly Tracy's film, and he's his usual redoubtable self, doing a fine job of being pulled between the opposite poles represented by Mary and Kay while retaining a personality of his own. Hepburn and Lansbury are each quite good as the angel and devil on his shoulder, projecting warmth and chills respectively. Van Johnson is both amusing and sneakily human as the cynical reporter. There are also a number of nifty performances in smaller roles, particularly Margaret Hamilton as a thoroughly venomous campaigner with a knack for pitting groups against each other.

Does it take away from Capra's hopeful ending that nothing's changed in the past decades? Maybe a little, if you look at it as a call to action, but the intervening time doesn't make things darker, either - it's still a funny and warm-hearted movie, just as relevant but also just as amusing.

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originally posted: 11/30/11 15:51:00
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  DVD: 22-Aug-2006



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