Frank Capra: Mr America runs through the legendary Hollywood director’s existence at a blistering pace. It’s not much of a reckoning with an established, well-covered star director as it is pit stops along the road of an illustrious and complicated life.

The documentary, directed by debut feature filmmaker Matthew Wells and making its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival 2024, is a brisk and punch-heavy 90 minutes, mainly centring itself on Capra as a reflection of America in the New Deal era.

Wells stated that his goal for the documentary was to show Capra as the most influential director Hollywood has seen. It’s almost hard to argue such a definitive statement: Capra’s coup d’état was always turning his idea of film into Hollywood’s idea of film, and in turn America’s. Films as universally recognised as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life are not only widely watched and admired today but set standards for Hollywood storytelling forever.

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Capra was a Sicilian immigrant who ingratiated himself into nascent Hollywood, a winner of the American dream sweepstakes. This made Capra the perfect model for the American filmmaker: hard-working, individualistic, moral, and aspirational. These films captured this zeitgeist of the time, yet the documentary fails to make obvious strands complete.

In Capra’s world, the individual is more powerful than any system. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the most overt with this when a young senator filled with idealism manages to win a battle against corruption on Capitol Hill. The documentary is right in positing these films as reflective of America but leaves what that entails vague. Capra’s America is more of an attitude or ideal than observation. The director even shows up in a past interview to state that his films are “life as you wish it were”. The documentary never satisfyingly reconciles the contradictions in Capra’s character and worldview, making Capra appear as either a contrasting figure or a hypocritical one.

But the lack of rounded-out detail is almost certainly down to the impossibly short length rather than short-sightedness on the part of the documentary’s director, suggesting that the career of an Old Hollywood master is more suited to long-form series where nuance can be explored.

For example, the documentary finishes its narrative of Capra’s journey as an immigrant outsider with the New Hollywood perspective of him becoming the status quo. It doesn’t prod much further, just being accepted as simple fact, but it’s context that needs further groundwork. Why was Capra’s filmmaking so unappealing to the New Hollywood filmmakers, when the individual plight featured prominently in both, just from a liberal individualism instead of a conservative one? Why did Dennis Hopper and others look to the French New Wave for cues over their Old Hollywood predecessors? There is more to be told.

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Despite that, the documentary is wholly proficient in providing a general impression of Capra’s life and works as a reminder of how Hollywood once took into consideration the humans watching their creations. Capra painted in broad strokes but still managed to get to specific feelings about humanity and how the world should work. He wanted to say something important, a common thread among Golden Era filmmakers, and he wanted as many people as possible to see his films and absorb their meaning.

Look around Hollywood now and that sentiment is unfamiliar. Capra’s Hollywood loved film and believed in its populist storytelling appeal, even if money was still the primary driver. Now the managers are in charge and money is still the primary driver, but the love sure is gone.