From the Saul Bass designed opening credits to the final shot of the United States Senate chamber, Otto Preminger's ADVISE & CONSENT (1962), is a riveting, compelling piece of American film making. Part civics lesson, part political thriller, ADVISE takes us behind the scenes of the U.S, Senate during the course of a confirmation hearing for the next Secretary of State. There's plenty of intrigue, arm-twisting, deal-making, back-stabbing and flat out blackmail put in to play over the course of the film's 139 minutes but, much to Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes (who adapted the novel by Allen Drury) credit, the narrative never sags or stalls.
Dying U.S. President (Franchot Tone), has nominated Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as his next Secretary of State. Note: although Fonda gets top billing in the cast, he's only in the film for a relatively small amount of time. The nomination must be approved by the Senate and a sub-committee, chaired by Senator Brigham Anderson of Utah (Don Murray) is appointed. Riding shotgun on the committee is Senator Seabright Cooley of South Carolina (Charles Laughton, full of plummy menace), who doesn't want Leffingwell to be approved. Leffingwell, a decent, right and honorable man as their ever was (after all, he's played by Henry Fonda), harbors a secret from his past. He had Communist sympathies and connections while he was in college and this being the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, it simply will not do to have a Secretary of State who will sue for peace and understanding with the Soviet Union.
During the course of the hearings, Leffingwell commits perjury but only a handful of people are aware of his transgression. One of them is the President who urges Senator Anderson to ignore it and proceed with the approval. Anderson cannot in good conscience betray his duty to the Senate and refuses to move forward. This triggers a blackmail/smear campaign from an unknown source which threatens to reveal a homosexual relationship in Anderson's past.
Leffingwell is eventually approved and the vote put to the Senate. But while the votes are being cast, a final, last second twist lands on the podium where Vice President Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres) holds the, if necessary, tie-breaking vote.
ADVISE & CONSENT starts slowly. There are many characters to be introduced and their motivations established. There's a also a bit of an info dump as Dolly Harrison (Gene Tierney), gives the wife of the British Ambassador a tour of the Capitol and explains to her how our American government works. But once the sub-committee hearings begin, the plot moves forward at a deliberate, measured pace.
The large cast is uniformly excellent. Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority Leader, the real power behind the hearings. He's aided by other Senators played by Paul Ford, Peter Lawford, Edward Andrews, Will Geer , Malcolm Atterbury and George Grizzard. Burgess Meredith has a small but memorable scene as a witness against Leffingwell. The U.S. Senate depicted in ADVISE is comprised almost entirely of white men, although there is one woman Senator (played by Betty White).
Otto Preminger's career can be roughly divided into two parts. Early on, Preminger excelled at film noir delivering such classics as LAURA (1944), FALLEN ANGEL (1945), DAISY KENYON (1947), WHIRLPOOL (1949), WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) and ANGEL FACE (1953). From the mid-'50s on, Preminger turned to hard-hitting, serious, adult dramas, many of which were based on bestselling novels. These films include THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1956), ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), EXODUS (1960), THE CARDINAL (1963) and IN HARM'S WAY (1965). ADVISE reminds me most of ANATOMY in that both films go into granular detail regarding their respective narrative arenas, a courtroom in ANATOMY and the Senate in ADVISE.
And let's not forget Preminger's career as an actor. He had a marvelous turn in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953) and later in his career, ended up playing, make that over-playing ("Wild!") Mister Freeze on the BATMAN television series.
ADVISE & CONSENT, in addition to being a compelling drama, offers a time capsule of our nation's politics circa the early '60s. It shows how much things have and have not changed in the more than fifty years since the film was released. Highly recommended.