Frank Capra: Mr America (review) – Venice Film Festival 2023

Frank Capra: Mr America is awaiting a UK and International release date.

Frank Capra: Mr America, directed by Matthew Wells, sets itself a challenging goal as it attempts to explore the life and career of one of the greatest film directors of the golden Hollywood era in just 92 minutes. Taking us from the darkness of the Great Depression to the arrival of America in World War II and the post-war volatility of a country obsessed with invasion and communism, Wells’ assured documentary couples interviews with archival footage as it explores Capra’s rise through an expanding Hollywood system while also attempting to uncover the internal conflict of the man behind the camera.

Capra was born into poverty in 1897 in Palermo, Sicily, before travelling, penniless, to America at the age of six with his family. His story is that of an immigrant who achieved the American dream and directed some of the best movies ever made in the process. But it is also the story of a man who carefully crafted a liberal image but held a far more conservative private persona. Capra would celebrate the common man prevailing against all odds in his films. From Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) to Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939), his movies focus on individual action and altruism. But Capra would also lead the US recruitment campaign and public information effort during World War II, play golf with Presidents and distance himself from the liberal writers who gave birth to many of the stories that won him Oscars. Frank Capra: Mr America is the story of a man who found his cinematic voice during the Great Depression and shaped the worldview of what it meant to be an American through his films.

Through interviews with figures ranging from Tom Rothman, CEO of Sony Pictures, the owner of Columbia, where Capra homed his craft, to Jeanine Basinger, a film scholar who curated Capra’s archives at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Mr America explores the emergence of Capra’s unique voice and cinematic style and his ability to talk to the American public in a way other filmmakers couldn’t. Mr America takes us from Capra’s 1920s silent pictures to his 1934 breakthrough, It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, before exploring his eventual decline following State of the Union (1948). Wells celebrates Capra’s ability to talk to his audience during the most challenging times by creating a new vision of the American dream on film, one rooted in the notion of community purpose and self-actualisation rather than financial gain. Here, Wells explores how Capra’s experiences shaped his vision as he strove to define his place in American society, rising from a studio janitor to a celebrated director. But Wells also isn’t afraid to dig into what made the real man tick, including his conflicted relationship with the country he called home. It is here where Wells’ documentary is at its most interesting.

In many ways, It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s final message movie and the beginning of the last curtain call of his career. It arrived in cinemas as America began to change, and a 1950s obsession with borders, barriers and Communism came into view. Capra wasn’t shielded from the feverish American focus on Communism, which only highlighted his immigrant status. Despite his close relationship with many politicians, he was denied government security clearance, and his films were suddenly viewed as left-wing propaganda. As a result, the country that had welcomed Capra suddenly saw him as a potential threat, leading him to defend himself from Communist accusations by throwing others under the bus, including many of the writers who made him great. Equally, Capra’s films would avoid discussing race, only reflecting the ‘white’ experience despite America’s racial divides and inequality. Here, Joseph McBride, who wrote Capra’s biography, raises important questions relating to Capra’s reluctance to reflect racial diversity that would have benefited from further interrogation.

These conversations deserve a feature-length documentary in their own right, as the dark side of Capra juxtaposes the carefully crafted Hollywood image. Here, Frank Capra: Mr America asks two pertinent questions: Did Capra ever believe in the liberal, altruistic stories he brought to the screen? Or was he a showman who knew what the audience wanted and needed based on the social structures surrounding them?

There are no simple answers to either of these questions: It is possible that Capra never felt that he belonged and, like many immigrants, felt the need to constantly redefine his place and purpose in maintaining his security. Equally, it’s possible his artistic vision was always separate from his political and social views. Wells’ documentary never has the time to fully delve into these themes and questions. But it offers us a tantalising peak behind the curtain of the life and career of a man who continues to define modern-day filmmaking while remaining a complicated showman and enigma.

  • Frank Capra: Mr America | United States | 2023


Wells’ documentary never has the time to fully delve into some of its fascinating themes and questions. But it offers us a tantalising peak behind the curtain of the life and career of a man who continues to define modern-day filmmaking while remaining a complicated showman and enigma.

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