I have a confession to make. I've never cared for the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life." As a child I found it long-winded, melodramatic, and a manipulative kind of tearjerker, even if I didn't use those exact words. After such a momentous last couple of years, I chose to revisit the film this December in search of wisdom and life lessons for difficult times. On this viewing I appreciated the film as a work of art, but something about it still bothered me, something at the heart of its story. "It's a Wonderful Life" is a deeply Christian morality tale about George Bailey's life of unrewarded sacrifice, and the older I get, the less patience I have for it.
This film begins with a framing device in which we're invited to view the story from the perspective of heaven. Two angels recruit Clarence (Henry Travers), a fellow angel who has yet to earn his wings, to answer prayers on behalf of a man named George Bailey (James Stewart), and they tell him the story of George's life. George dreams of leaving his small town to travel the world and be an architect — "I want to build things!" — but is held back from his dreams at every turn and ends up staying to run his father's building and loan business and making his community a better place.
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Most critics say that this setup leads to a nuanced drama about the hard work of making choices in everyday life, the fact that often no good deed goes unpunished, and the strength of character required to do those good deeds anyway. But the narrative also drags George Bailey through contrived and increasingly satirical levels of suffering just because it can.
Each of the choices he makes seems to have only two possible answers: offer great personal sacrifice or let the people around you suffer enormously. This reduces human decency to a simple equation, in which it's always easy to identify the right thing, even if the thing itself is difficult to do. There's no room for nuance, creative solutions, or seeing both sides. George is selfless to a fault, specifically because the story gives him no room for negotiation.
All of this is compounded when George is framed for embezzlement by the wealthy town bully Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who tells him that, according to George's life insurance policy, he's "worth more dead than alive." George goes to a bridge over a raging river and contemplates jumping in when Clarence stops him. George tells Clarence that everything would be better if he'd "never been born." So Clarence takes him on a tour of what his little town would have looked like without him. Only when George sees how much worse off the people in his life would have been does he want to live again.
Many critics say that this ending upholds the value of human life, but that's not quite what the script says, is it? George Bailey's life isn't presented as inherently valuable; it's only valuable because of his constant selfless deeds.
In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of the film, a teenaged George returns to his job working for Old Man Gower's pharmacy to see that his boss is furious. Gower (H.B. Warner) wants to know why George didn't deliver the medicine he was instructed to take to a sick boy. George explains that Gower accidentally packaged poison pills (one of the film's more blatant contrivances), not medicine. Gower, furious at his child employee for saying such a thing, strikes him, and when George begs him to stop, Gower strikes him again. Only when he realizes that George is telling the truth does he reach out with gentleness, but George still cowers away. "Please don't hit me again, sir," is all he says.
As a grown man standing on that bridge, ready to trade in his life for the money it would bring his family, he's still that little boy who never learned to raise a hand in his own defense, who sees himself as worthy only as far as he can shoulder others' burdens. And the great lesson an angel imparts to him is that shouldering all of those burdens was worth it in the end.
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This story openly equates self-preservation with selfishness. George Bailey is asked throughout the film whether he will help himself or others ("or" being the operative word), and in the final act, it tallies up the events of his life and says that helping others at the expense of his own well-being was the correct thing to do. Just look at the suffering that would have existed if he had not suffered instead! See how this gives his life value!
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The portrayal of George's constant selflessness is deeply human, but not in the way the film frames it. In relationships, organizations, and communities, the people who are willing to show up, do work, and take blame are allowed to continue doing just that, while others depend on them and their continued sacrifice. Inertia is a property of humanity, and it hurts people.
I am not suggesting to remove this film from future holiday watchlists, but to look at its fictionalized moral lesson with a little less worship. This story upholds troubling ideas about human worth that have plagued American culture for centuries: that each person's value is determined by a concrete impact that can be seen, and that virtue and hard work are their own rewards. Parts of this film offer timely lessons for difficult times. We need to outgrow the other parts in order to have a truly compassionate view of human worth.
Giving of yourself until there's nothing left isn't kindness, and it's not decency. It's suicide.
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