No one would (or at least, should) mistake the hyped up dramatics in Advise and Consent for a realistic depiction of the workings of the US Senate. And the situation that sets the story in motion, the nomination of a controversial candidate for Secretary of State, Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) by an ailing President (Franchot Tone) is not exactly the kind of the thing to set the hearts of most viewers racing. Moreover, many are likely to find the two central plot devices—questions about Leffingwell’s attitudes towards the Soviet Union, and the blackmailing of a senator about a gay relationship—at best remote, at worst laughably dated.
Too bad for most viewers. Because hyperbolic as it may be, Advise and Consent is a riveting drama about the exercise of power, the corrupt means exercised in the name of supposedly “good” ends, and the inability to extricate personal motivations from political actions. The depiction is not profound and the situation verges on the cartoonish at some points (most notoriously in a garishly overwrought sequence in a New York gay bar), but for the most part, director Otto Preminger keeps moving things along forcefully. Despite the talky subject, the movie never bogs down, it keeps leaning forward, insistently keeping us engaged, but never so rushed as to be misunderstood.
Preminger stages many of the scenes in sustained takes, allowing the actors to develop their characters more thoroughly than when their performances are cut to pieces. Well known for his use of camera movement and deep focus, it is perhaps less obvious how often Preminger’s characters themselves move restlessly, helping to sustain the sense of urgency in a rough and tumble political jungle.
There isn’t a bad performance in the very large cast, although conversely, none stand out. Charles Laughton as the Southern senator Cooley comes closest. Laughton tends to dominate any film in which he appears. His relative restraint here is all the more striking given that Cooley is prone to dramatic posturing. Perhaps the infamously dictatorial Preminger reined him in. The director can certainly be credited for the actors’ ensemble work. However contrived the situation, the cast makes us understand what is at stake and to care about the machinations swirling around a complex political choice.
That complexity is perhaps the most intriguing thing about Advise. None of the characters offer easy subjects for identification. All work from mixed motives. The “heroes,” such as Leffingwell, are deeply flawed. (Leffingwell’s perjury and merciless destruction of a pathetic clerk played by Burgess Meredith provides a razor sharp depiction of just how ruthless an “idealist” can become.) The “villains” are shown as capable of deeply held convictions, however misguided. Indeed, the biggest villain of them all, Senator Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), is on the “right” side of the appointment proceedings. That level of objectivity is exceedingly rare in any film. For it to occur amidst the heated melodramatic manipulations of Advise and Consent is quite impressive.