Analysis of Mr. Smith goes to Washington

Summary The movie centers around the political maneuverings to fill a vacant Senate seat after a senator's death. Key political figures pressure Governor Hopper to appoint Horace Miller, but after he is rejected by a committee, Jefferson Smith is appointed amidst political pressure. Smith challenges the dishonesty of the press, leading to a violent outburst and resignation, but is then given a new project by Senator Paine to start a National Boys' Camp, causing a stir among politicians. Smith is accused of shady dealings and defends his beliefs on democracy and education in front of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, with Taylor and his cronies trying to frame him as a criminal. Smith's filibuster continues with the support of his allies, and just as he collapses, Paine publicly confesses to corruption, leading to a small victory for Smith and his allies.

Screenplay Story Analysis

Story Critique The story is well-paced and the characters are engaging, but it relies heavily on various coincidences to advance the plot and some of the dialogue is overly simplistic. Additionally, the emotional arc of the main character could be further developed to make his actions more believable.
Suggestions: Consider rewriting some of the dialogue to sound more natural and ensure that each character's motivations are clear. Try to avoid relying on coincidences and instead find ways to make the plot more organic. Furthermore, think about ways to add depth to the main character's internal struggle and make his eventual triumph more satisfying.

Note: This is the overall critique. For scene by scene critique click here

Characters in the screenplay, and their arcs:

Governor Hopper

Governor Hopper is a seasoned politician who values consensus and seeks to navigate through the murky waters of politics. He is indecisive at times, but tries to play his cards well under immense pressure. As a conflicted politician, he is torn between appeasing the angry committees and fulfilling Jim and Joe's expectations. Ultimately, he chooses Jefferson Smith to fill the vacant Senate seat, despite opposition from some committee members.

Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor is a savvy, strong-willed, and cynical political operator. He is focused on pushing through the Willet Creek Dam project and securing power for himself and his allies. He is ruthless, corrupt, and will stop at nothing to get what he wants, including threatening and intimidating those who oppose him. He is a powerful figure in the political world, willing to use any means necessary to get what he wants, including blackmail and deception.

Senator Paine

Senator Paine is a seasoned politician who initially appears as a mentor to Jefferson Smith. He is impressed by Jefferson's character and shares his love for lost causes and printer's ink. Throughout the movie, Paine tries to guide and advise Jefferson but becomes tired and exasperated when Jeff does not fall in line with their plans for his career in the Senate. Ultimately, Paine is revealed to be a corrupt politician who is willing to do whatever necessary to maintain his power and connections to the political machine. He is conflicted and troubled by what he has to do but ultimately believes in the greater good.


McGann is a middle-aged man with gruff demeanor and no-nonsense attitude. He comes off as frustrated and irritable, especially when dealing with Jeff's wandering. Initially portrayed as bumbling and hapless, he is shown to be prone to comedic situations. He is deeply jealous and aggressive towards Jefferson's attempts to create a camp bill. McGann tries to distance himself from the accusations made by Jefferson and appears singularly focused on making a phone call to James Taylor.


Saunders is a competent and loyal secretary who serves as an aide to various politicians throughout the movie. She is excitable and quick to defend those she cares about, but also has a practical and resourceful side to her. Saunders is initially optimistic about politics and idealistic in her beliefs, but over time becomes jaded and disillusioned with the system. She is a complex character who struggles with her conflicting emotions as she tries to navigate the political landscape.


Diz is a journalist and a friend of Saunders. He is sarcastic, carefree, and a heavy drinker. He is willing to go along with Saunders' schemes but is level-headed. Diz becomes invested in Jefferson Smith's struggle for democracy and determined to get the truth out to the public.


Paine is a charismatic and smooth-talking politician who initially appears to be a loyal friend and ally to Jefferson Smith. He is well-liked and respected by his peers for his ability to persuade and negotiate. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Paine is not as noble as he appears on the surface. He becomes corrupted by the political machine and Taylor's influence, leading him to betray his old friend in order to protect his own political career.

Clarissa Saunders

Clarissa Saunders is an experienced and practical assistant to Jefferson Smith who initially focuses solely on work but gradually opens up to Smith's enthusiasm for nature. She is often cynical and has a dry sense of humor, but also shows a lighthearted and playful side when joking with her colleagues. Saunders is a loyal ally to Smith, navigating the political players in the Senate with ease and always trying to support his vision while also looking out for his wellbeing.


Taylor is a wealthy and powerful political boss, manipulative and cunning, who will stop at nothing to maintain his power and control of the government and the media. He is a menacing presence, presenting as a shady character with complex motivations

Character Arc Critique Suggestions
Governor Hopper Governor Hopper begins as a politician under intense pressure to select a new senator. Initially, he is frustrated and anxious about the situation, but as the storyline progresses, he becomes more confident in his decision-making abilities. He tries to navigate through the political landscape while also seeking a consensus. Ultimately, he chooses Jefferson Smith to fill the vacant Senate seat, despite opposition from some members. However, as he witnesses Smith's idealism and his fight against corruption, he comes to realize the flaws in his own career as a politician. He begins to question his own motives and embarks on a journey towards becoming a more principled and honest politician, one who truly values the opinions of his constituents. While Governor Hopper's character arc is decent, it could have been more developed. The journey towards becoming a more principled and honest politician feels rushed and somewhat forced. There could have been more scenes that showcase his internal struggles and self-reflection. Additionally, his change in character could have been more explicitly tied to his interactions with Jefferson Smith.
To improve Governor Hopper's character arc, the screenwriters could have added more scenes to showcase his internal struggles and self-reflection. They could have also made his change in character more pronounced and explicitly tied to his interactions with Jefferson Smith. For example, they could have shown him being inspired by Smith's idealism and commitment to fighting corruption, which leads him to question his own career as a politician.
Jim Taylor Throughout the movie, Jim Taylor's character arc shows a shift in his priorities. At the beginning, he is solely focused on getting the dam project approved and securing power for himself and his allies. However, as the movie progresses, his interactions with the protagonist, Jefferson Smith, challenge his corrupt and manipulative ways. He begins to realize the importance of doing what is right, rather than just pushing his own agenda. This leads to his eventual downfall as his actions are exposed, and he is held accountable for his corrupt behavior. The character arc for Jim Taylor is well-developed and shows a clear progression in his character. However, his ultimate downfall feels rushed and could benefit from further exploration in the screenplay. Additionally, while the shift in his priorities is clear, his motivations for this shift could be better defined.
To improve the character arc for Jim Taylor, consider providing more context for his internal struggles and motivations as he begins to question his corrupt behavior. Additionally, further exploring the consequences of his actions and the impact they have on those around him can strengthen the impact of his downfall.
Senator Paine Senator Paine's character arc in the screenplay is one of betrayal and redemption. Initially, Paine is portrayed as a mentor to Jefferson Smith, but his true colors are eventually revealed and he is shown to be corrupt and willing to do whatever necessary to maintain his power. However, towards the end of the movie, Paine begins to feel conflicted and disillusioned with his own actions. He is torn between his loyalty to Taylor and his growing admiration for Smith's sincerity and courage. This internal conflict ultimately leads to Paine's redemption, as he comes to the realization that his actions were wrong and decides to confess all to the Senate and take responsibility for his corruption. The character arc for Senator Paine is well-developed throughout the movie, but there could be more emphasis on his internal conflict as he grapples with his own actions. Additionally, his ultimate redemption could be more impactful if it was more clearly linked to his relationship with Jefferson Smith. This would create a stronger emotional connection between the two characters and add more weight to Paine's eventual decision to confess and take responsibility for his corruption.
To improve Senator Paine's character arc, more emphasis could be placed on his internal conflict as he grapples with his own actions. Additionally, his ultimate redemption could be more impactful if it was more clearly linked to his relationship with Jefferson Smith. One suggestion would be to have a scene where Paine has a heart-to-heart conversation with Jefferson, where he talks about his feelings of guilt and conflicted loyalties. This would create a stronger emotional connection between the two characters and add more weight to Paine's eventual decision to confess and take responsibility for his corruption.
McGann Initially the antagonist in the story, McGann evolves through the film to become a more sympathetic character. Over time, he begins to see the value in what Jefferson is trying to do and develops a begrudging respect for his colleague. By the end of the movie, McGann has come to a place of understanding and empathy with Jefferson, admitting his faults and apologizing for his past behavior. His character arc is marked by his growth from an antagonist to a supportive and empathetic ally. While the character of McGann undergoes a transformation throughout the movie, it is somewhat rushed and underdeveloped. His shift from antagonist to ally feels abrupt and not entirely believable. The character's early comedic scenes also undermine his later development, making it difficult for him to be taken seriously as a more mature character.
To make McGann's transformation more believable, it would be helpful to have more scenes that show his internal conflicts and motivations. These could be used to foreshadow his later change of heart and to deepen the audience's investment in his character. Additionally, toning down the comedic elements of his early scenes might allow him to be seen as a more multifaceted character, able to grow and evolve over the course of the movie.
Saunders Saunders starts out as a loyal and idealistic assistant to various politicians, but over time becomes disillusioned with the system and more practical in her approach. She is initially happy to support Jefferson's campaign for the boys' camp, but grows frustrated with his behavior and the mounting pressure on their cause. After Paine's betrayal, Saunders becomes devastated and humiliated, but eventually regains her confidence and helps Jefferson clear his name. In the end, she is a determined and savvy political operative who is deeply invested in Jefferson's success and the fight for democracy. The character arc for Saunders is well-developed and complex, allowing for growth and change over the course of the movie. However, her arc could benefit from more consistent development throughout the story, with clearer motivations and actions to support her shifting beliefs and emotions. Additionally, some of the transitions between her various roles and allegiances could be more smoothly handled to avoid confusion and maintain the audience's investment in her character.
To improve Saunders' character arc, consider adding more specific moments that demonstrate her changing attitudes and beliefs over time. Use her actions and decisions to show how she responds to the challenges and conflicts she faces throughout the story. Also, try to clarify her motivations and thoughts through her dialogue and interactions with other characters, so the audience can understand her internal struggles and identify with her character more fully. Finally, be mindful of the transitions between her various roles and ensure they are well-motivated and clear to avoid confusion and maintain consistency in her character development.
Diz Diz starts off as a casual and cynical journalist who sees Jefferson Smith as an easy target. As he observes Smith's actions, he begins to feel sympathy for him and becomes excited and energized by his dedication to democracy. Diz gradually becomes more invested in Smith's cause, working with Saunders to get the truth out to the public. His character arc culminates in his determination to support Smith and rally support for him. The character arc for Diz is well done, but it would have been good to see more development earlier on in the movie. It would have been interesting to see more of his backstory and what made him cynical. It also would have been good to see more of his involvement with Saunders earlier on so that their partnership would have felt more established.
To improve Diz's character arc, it would have been good to see more of his personal backstory and what made him cynical earlier on. It also would have been good to see more of his partnership with Saunders earlier on so that it would feel more established. Additionally, it would have been interesting to see more inner dialogue from Diz that would show his thoughts and feelings about Smith's cause, especially in the beginning when he was more cynical.
Paine Paine begins the story as a charming and persuasive politician who is admired by his peers and respected by Jefferson Smith. He starts off as a loyal friend and ally to Smith, convincing him to stay on with Jeff despite initial reluctance and defending him against Senator attacks. However, as the story progresses, Paine becomes more and more conflicted with his loyalty to Smith and his desire to protect his own political career. He ultimately chooses to side with Taylor and the political machine against Smith and goes to great lengths to discredit and undermine him. This ultimately leads to Paine's downfall, as he realizes the extent of his corruption and betrayal and feels guilty for his actions. The character arc for Paine is well-developed and realistic, but could benefit from more explicit details and character development earlier in the story to better illustrate his transformation. Additionally, some of Paine's actions and decisions feel a bit forced and unrealistic, which can undermine the audience's ability to empathize with his character.
To improve Paine's character arc, consider including more backstory and flashbacks that illustrate his relationship with Smith prior to the events of the story. Additionally, consider making his transformation more gradual and nuanced, rather than sudden and extreme. This can help to make his actions and decisions more believable and realistic, and better capture the audience's empathy and understanding.
Clarissa Saunders Throughout the movie, Saunders starts off as a practical and skeptical assistant to Jefferson Smith but gradually grows to support his vision and become more enthusiastic about the possibility of the National Boys' Camp bill. She also begins to open up more emotionally, showing a lighthearted and playful side to her personality. As Smith's fight against corruption intensifies, Saunders becomes more concerned for his wellbeing and takes more action to help him. By the end of the movie, Saunders has become a loyal ally and friend to Smith, committed to helping him fight for what's right and navigate the treacherous waters of politics. While Saunders' character arc is generally well-developed, it could benefit from more exploration of her emotional journey. As she grows more supportive of Smith and begins to open up emotionally, it would be interesting to see more of the internal conflicts and struggles she faces in letting her guard down. Additionally, some of her growth feels a bit rushed, particularly towards the end of the movie when she becomes a more active participant in Smith's fight. More time could be devoted to exploring how Saunders moves from being a pragmatic observer to a passionate ally.
To improve Saunders' character arc, the screenplay could devote more time to exploring her internal journey and emotional growth. This could involve more scenes of her interacting with Smith and other characters in meaningful ways, as well as more reflection on her own motivations and beliefs. Additionally, some of her growth could be spread out more evenly throughout the movie, rather than feeling condensed in the final act. By giving Saunders more time and attention, the filmmakers could make her character arc even more compelling and engaging to audiences.
Taylor Initially, Taylor's only motivation seems to be the approval of the Willet Creek Dam project. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that his desire for control extends beyond the project. He begins to feel threatened by Jefferson Smith's authenticity and popularity, and his attempts to destroy Smith's reputation become more desperate and extreme. In the end, Taylor's actions catch up with him and he is exposed for the corrupt manipulator he is. The character description is well-written and provides a clear understanding of Taylor's motivations and behavior. The character arc is also strong, but could benefit from a clearer connection between Taylor's power-hungry behavior and his personal motivations. It is unclear why he desires power and control, beyond a general desire for influence. Additionally, more development of Taylor's backstory could strengthen the arc and make it more emotionally impactful for the audience.
Consider adding a scene that delves into Taylor's backstory and more clearly establishes his motivations for seeking power and control. Additionally, make sure that his desire for control and his actions to maintain it are consistently depicted throughout the entire film, rather than only becoming apparent towards the end. Finally, consider adding a moment of self-reflection or regret for Taylor, to add depth and complexity to the character.
Theme Theme Details Themee Explanation
Corruption in politicsThe screenplay captures the theme of corruption in politics by portraying the struggle between Smith and Taylor's group, where the latter attempts to discredit Smith by labeling him as corrupt to turn public opinion against him.The screenplay highlights the practice of corruption in politics, where lawmakers engage in shady dealings to serve their interests, leading to a lack of accountability and trust in the political system.
The power of the press and mediaThe portrayal of media and press coverage in the screenplay highlights the power they hold in shaping public opinion and affecting political outcomes.The theme of the power of the press and media addresses the importance of unbiased and objective reporting in political discourse and how it can shape public opinion and hold lawmakers accountable.
Standing up against authorityThe screenplay depicts the protagonist, Jefferson Smith, standing up against authority figures and refusing to yield to their pressure and demands.The theme of standing up against authority addresses the struggles faced by individuals challenging the status quo and speaking up against injustices, regardless of the consequences and resistance faced.
Integrity and morality in politicsThe screenplay portrays the struggle of Jefferson Smith to maintain his integrity and not compromise his beliefs in the face of corruption and opposition.The theme of integrity and morality in politics addresses the importance of character and values in political leadership, emphasizing the need for transparency, accountability, and honesty in public service.
Civic engagement and participationThe screenplay highlights the role of civic engagement and participation in shaping political outcomes, with the public actively involved in supporting or opposing different political figures and policies.The theme of civic engagement and participation addresses the importance of active citizenship, where individuals engage in political discourse and take part in shaping their communities and the broader society through collective action and civic responsibility.

Screenwriting Resources on Themes


Site Description
Studio Binder Movie Themes: Examples of Common Themes for Screenwriters
Coverfly Improving your Screenplay's theme
John August Writing from Theme

YouTube Videos

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Story, Plot, Genre, Theme - Screenwriting Basics Screenwriting basics - beginner video
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