‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope
©by Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” (now available online and in bookstores)
For many of us, the ugly, vitriolic tenor of the presidential election combined with the incendiary comments and divisive ideas expressed by president-elect Donald Trump have cast a dark pall on things. That’s why there’s no better time than now to watch that great American chestnut of cinema, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” than this particular holiday season.
Film Streams in Omaha is screening this tragic-comic masterwork directed by Frank Capra beginning Dec. 17 on select days through Christmas. The project was Capra’s response to the horrors of the recently concluded Second World War and the recent Great Depression. What Americans today forget is that while the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was greeted with relief and jubilation, the scars of that conflict and of the harsh realities experienced by those who fought it took a deep psychic toll on the nation. Just as America lost its innocence during the Civil War and World War I, it lost any pretense of an idealized world following WWII. Oh, sure, the nation bt on with the business of work, marriage, family and the creation of the consumer age we’re now hostage to, but Capra knew that Americans were an insecure, wounded people behind all that bluster and bravado. It’s no coincidence that that dark cinema of film noir found its apex of expression in the years immediately following the war.
The message of the 1946 film has never been more relevant now as people reeling from the last few months despair over what policies and executive orders will undo the fabric of a nation that for all its inequities does have programs and measures in place to protect the vulnerable among us.
Many folks upset with the election results and fearful of what might be in store the coming four years. feel hopeless, as if their votes and wishes don’t count, and perhaps even harbor a sense that they just don’t matter in the cold calculus of the new world order.
If you’re familiar with the plot, then you know that protagonist George Bailey played by James Stewart is a small town dreamer forever putting off his personal desire for adventure in service to his family’s proletariat building and loan. The business is the last hold out against ruthless Bedford Falls tycoon Mr. Potter, a banker and real estate magnet whose power grab lust will make him stop at nothing to crush his competition. Where George and his late father before him have worked with clients of all races and ethnicities to get them in or keep them in modest homes they could afford, Potter’s only interest is the bottom-line, and if that means pricing them out, then so be it. He represents the bourgeoisie at its most heartless.
It is the classic conflict between the Everyman and the Privileged Man, between the haves and the have-nots, between the forces of good and the forces of evi, between facism and pluarilsml. All sorts of parallels can be found between Potter and Trump. Both are pompous assess who are unfeeling and unbending in their pursuit of wealth and power and they make no apologies for the corners they cut, the contracts they break, the lies they tell and the damage they do.
George Bailey is a young progressive who would have supported FDR then and would have backed Hilary or Bernie today. The disenchanted majority who feel Trump usurped their presumptive president elect by using fear and hate mongering rhetoric are adrift now, no longer at all certain that the democratic process works the way it was intended. Many have thrown up their hands in frustration and worked themselves into fits of anger, desperation and anxiety in anticipation of the Trump administration. In the movie. George loses his faith in America and humanity when things go from bad to worse and it appears to him that all his work and life have been a waste. The tale, which can best be described as a light romantic comedy fantasy meets gritty film noir fable, has George grow so depressed that he contemplates suicide, uttering the wish that he’d never been born. A surreal heavenly intervention shows him how different the world would have been and how empty the lives of his family and friends would be without him having made his mark.
The populist message with spiritual overtones is a reminder, even a challenge that life is a gift that we are expected to cherish and that our imprint, no matter how small or insignificant we believe it to be, is irreplaceable and unique only to us. In this spirit, “It’s a Wonderful Life” calls each of us to do our part in finding our path and following it to do unto others as we would have them do to us. We may not like or understand the path, especially when it grows hard and we grow weary, but it is in the doing that we fulfill our destiny.
In a recent interview I did with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne he expressed his immeasurable regard for the professional extras who once populated the Hollywood studio factory system. He marveled at how perfectly cast these variations of character actors were and how fully realized, detailed, curated and directed were the business they did and the wardrobe they wore, whether in the background or foreground of shots. He used the example of “Casablanca” as being the epitome of this. “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the same. By the way, the reason why Payne discussed extras at some length with me is that he used a lot of them, as in several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand, not ever all together in any one shot or scene mind you, in his new movie “Downsizing.” He and Kevin Tent are editing the film right now and presumably getting it ready to show at Cannes in May.
Look for a new post this week about “Downsizing” and why you should start the countdown to its fall release. Here’s a hint: its themes become ever more prescient with each new American blunder and world crisis.
Just as “Downsizing” will reflect back to us where America and the world have come and where it might go, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an ageless morality play in the Shakespearean mold are that reveals universal truths of the human heart and soul in extremis.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” has had a profound effect on me the many times I’ve seen it and I have no doubt it will move me again.
One of the most beloved holiday films of all time, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a good man who’s spent his entire life putting other people before himself. When George falls victim to the antics of a greedy banker, he’s cast into a life-threatening despair — that is, until a guardian angel named Clarence shows George what the world would have been like had he never been born.
Also Shown: December 19, 20, 24 & 25, 2015
December 14 -17, 2012
December 17-18, 22, 24-25, 29, 2011
Country of Origin
Year Shown Last