Brow Beat

Post–“Nuclear Option,” Remember the Most Famous Filibusters on Film and TV

All you need is a thermos, an apple, and a hunger for justice.

Columbia Pictures

It’s been a long time since filibusters actually involved actually holding the Senate floor (not to mention your water) for hours for hours on end, but a lone figure standing up against injustice and the limitations of his or her calf muscles has been an image too good for film- and TV makers to pass up. With Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, invoking the “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster and install Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court, that particular device has been removed from screenwriters’ bag of tricks—yes, it’s still possible to filibuster individual pieces of legislation, but given the filibuster’s very public dismantling, the dialogue necessary to explain that the Senate didn’t blow up that kind of filibuster would be more of a drag than most scripts could bear. So let’s look back at some of the filibuster’s most glorious on-screen moments, knowing we will not see their like again.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Most people’s understanding of what a filibuster is still goes back to Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, in which Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic but naïve freshman Senator who runs afoul of corrupt politicians and is eventually framed for corruption himself. Just as the Senate is about to vote to expel him, he seizes the floor and holds it for nearly 24 hours, until he faints dead away. When Smith discloses his intent by slipping a thermos and an apple out of his suitcoats, the assembled reporters run for the doors to phone their editors, excitedly yelling “Filibuster!” One eager CBS hack later refers to it as “democracy’s finest show … the right to talk your head off.”

Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)

Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack, a half-Navajo Vietnam veteran fighting authority in all its forms, cannily channeled countercultural sentiment to become a surprisingly durable franchise. The gas had pretty much run out by the fourth movie, though, a loose, uncredited Mr. Smith remake in which Billy’s fill-in Senator runs afoul of the nuclear power industry. Laughlin shoehorns in a fight scene and a chance for his character to show his resolve by smashing his fist through a glass table—why didn’t Jimmy Stewart think of that?—but the movie ends the same way, with Billy Jack collapsing on the Senator floor. Although Laughlin began work on a fifth Billy Jack movie in the mid-’80s, it was never completed. The Man won that round.

“The Stackhouse Filibuster,” The West Wing (2001)

The rare fictional example where the filibustering Senator is the antagonist, standing in the way of President Jed Bartlet’s Family Wellness Act.” Bartlet initially labels Sen. Stackhouse a “crank,” but he discovers that the reason for his opposition is the bill’s inadequate funding for autism research. (He has an autistic grandchild but doesn’t want to exploit him for political gain.) So Bartlet’s staff sets about devising ways for Stackhouse to continue his filibuster without having to read out the rules of card games, by allowing him to take a load off while other senators ask him questions. We’re not treated in its entirety to the one that has 22 separate parts, but no doubt Sen. Stackhouse appreciated the break.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Scandal (2015)

The most famous of recent old-school filibusters was Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’ 13-hour attempt to derail restrictive abortion regulations, which got a fictional analogue two years later when Scandal’s Mellie Grant took a stand against the attempt to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Mellie didn’t pack so much as a pair of pink sneakers for her filibuster, but apparent West Wing fan Olivia Pope phoned in a suggestion for then-Veep Susan Ross to ask a question so that Mellie could sneak out for a pee. Sisterhood is powerful.

*Correction, April 6: This post originally misspelled West Wing president Jed Bartlet’s last name.