Monday, December 27, 2004

Argument: "It's a Wonderful Life"

I have come to the conclusion that "It's a Wonderful Life" just might be the loveliest movie ever made.

The cynical backlash to this statement is instantaneous. Many would argue convincingly that the film, along with every other work of director Frank Capra, is (to borrow Barry's phrase) "tacky, sentimental crap." They would claim that Capra's view of life is irrepressibly rosy, a Polyanna-flavored lens through which he filters his idealized Americana. And to some degree, they would be correct. Even Capra himself admitted that he wanted everything he created to be uplifting.

But the accusation of Capra having a rosy Rockwellian blindness to reality is rather unfounded. In most of his movies, there are shadows and fears. Death. Corruption. Scandal. The difference is that rather than focusing on these elements of human life, Capra's stories turned and examined how honest, good-hearted people dealt with these circumstances. And the perfect example of this is Capra's personal favorite of his legendary filmography, "It's a Wonderful Life."

For those of you who have foolishly avoided or tragically never encountered the tale, it's a story of George Bailey, a common, smalltown business owner who's at the end of his rope. When this Everyman considers suicide (so that the insurance money can pay his company's debts), an angel is sent to stop him and remind him of how blessed he really is. Through a frightening vision of a world without his life's impact, George learns that each person has the ability to affect the lives of countless others through daily acts of kindness and decency.

Perhaps this is too saccharine for you, but I believe that, outside of the story of Christ, this is the most beautiful idea ever conveyed on film.

I hear many focus on the last twenty minutes of the film, the interaction between Clarence the guardian angel and the hopeless George, as if it were the real story. My own description above does this, out of necessity. But the real tale of George Bailey is everything leading up to his desparate attempt at suicide. The story of George Bailey is one of constant sacrifice for the sake of ideals and convictions deeply held. George seems to "take up his cross daily", if you will, crucifying his own ambitions and desires for the good of his family and friends. And though there's rarely a complaint from him, until the worst of his troubles befalls him, you can always see the struggle between selfishness and sacrifice through brief moments of frustrated silence.

Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor of all time, so I'm a bit biased. But it was only recently that I realized how complex and nuanced his portrayal of George Bailey is. There is always something going on in his face. Every tortured decision can be seen boiling behind his eyes. Stewart believably conveys both George's open goodness and his utter desperation.

"It's a Wonderful Life" was nominated for several Academy awards (including Best Picture, Director, and Actor) but didn't win a single one. (All three major awards went to 1946's other landmark film, "The Best Years of Our Lives.") It enjoyed only mediocre public response. Most audiences said it was, in fact, too depressing for a "Christmas" movie.

The fact that television stations began showing the film every Christmas since the copyright ran out is another reason why the film is (perhaps unfairly) pigeon-holed as a "Christmas movie." But it's so much more than that. The final climactic sequence takes place on Christmas Eve, but the whole story of the movie, like George's life, takes place and has meaning in many seasons.

Critics dubbed the film to be another example of "Capra-corn", a syrupy feel-good film with a heart of cotton candy. But I think even they missed the point. Any film that addresses the death of a parent/sibling, the Depression, alcoholism, theft, and attempted suicide--and is still considered senimental fluff--is, if nothing else, a remarkable feat of storytelling.

The real message of "It's a Wonderful Life" is one that I believe deeply--every life matters, and every life affects the ones around it. While George's story may be called a bit exceptional at times--rescuing his baby brother from drowning, so that he could one day grow up to be a war hero and Medal of Honor recipient--it isn't any less "true." Sometimes the smallest kindnesses are the ones which make the most impact. The love we show to the "least of these" may be the most life-changing.

That's what George Bailey taught me--a life of sacrifice and compassion is a life truly lived. And when I find myself trapped in my own despair, I must turn Heavenward and ask God for the ability to "live again."

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