It’s A Wonderful Life

The year 2020 can be summarized in one sentiment: please end.

In many ways this has been a wretched year. It has given us the Covid-19 pandemic, shelter at home, face masks, and social distancing. It has given us the awareness of several unarmed African Americans killed by police, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrations, counter demonstrations and the seemingly endless chatter of the US President on twitter. It has been an exhausting, fear filled year. A year in which Christmas might well provide a welcome sanctuary.

We all have favorite seasonal Christmas movies, many of which have become regular items on our holiday to do list. My list includes Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas Vacation, Elf, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and Santa Clause, The Movie. These seasonal movies have in common that they offer a welcome escape from life’s immediate realities and some also provide the added escape of nostalgia, conjuring up fond memories of Christmas past.

Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite seasonal movie. No doubt my affection came about through its regular screening on television, in those bygone days before internet streaming, video disks, or even VCR tapes. But it is my favorite because I love the movie’s ending – perhaps Hollywood’s happiest happy ending. But I also like that it does not only offer easy comfort.

George Bailey, the central character, becomes suicidal when his uncle loses the family business bank deposit on Christmas Eve and George feels his life crushing in on him. He is so sure of his worthlessness that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence, his guardian angel, saves George by showing him what the world would be like if he got his wish. This directly leads to the movie’s joyful conclusion. But the loss deposit on Christmas Eve is only one in a series of hardships that George has endured.

George is the ultimate victim of life’s unpredictability. He defers his dreams to accommodate his father’s death, his brother’s marriage, and numerous family and business decisions. The Christmas season, and the loss and then theft of the business bank deposit, are the straws that break the camel’s back of his pent-up frustrations. It comes to a head with George storming into his home and, uncharacteristically, berating his family’s efforts to prepare for a festive Christmas Eve celebration.

Afterwards he feels desolate, depressed and alone, not only because of the events of that one day but from a lifetime of struggles. This is why, to rescue him from despair, Clarence needs to show George the wonderful contributions his whole life has made.

The movie is really about life’s injustices and characterizes the secular Christmas season as a time when life’s struggles are amplified, not muted. It reminds us that the way our culture celebrates Christmas can be difficult, unless we remind ourselves that it is one day out of the many that make up our lives.

I love the ending of this movie, but I’ve always wished I could see Mr. Potter get what he deserved. The deposit, loss then stolen, is replaced by the charitable donations of George’s friends and family but Mr Potter, the thief, goes unpunished. It’s A Wonderful Life contains a number of themes found in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but notable absent is that the one character most resembling Ebenezer Scrooge, namely Mr. Potter, has no kind of Scrooge-like redemption. Potter is a ruthless capitalist with no regard for fairness who likes to plaster his name on everything he builds. (Kinda reminds me of, well, never mind.) By leaving Potter unpunished, the movie resists the urge to perfectly wrap everything up on Christmas and leaves open the possibility that life’s inequities and struggles may continue beyond Christmas Day.

As I recently re-watched It’s A Wonderful Life it struck me that it is the perfect movie for Christmas 2020. Life’s imperfections are not smoothed over nor or the world’s problems solved through a deux ex machina. The next time you watch it pay attention to the way George reacts after he is granted his rebirth, note that the money is still lost, and his life is still hopelessly complicated. But George runs through the town shouting out joyful greetings to the buildings he passes, he bangs on Potter’s window and wishes him Merry Christmas, he welcomes the men who have come to arrest him, he gathers his children around him and kisses his wife over and over as if to be sure that he would not lose her again. George’s joy, in defiance of his problems, provides a 2020 kind of comfort to us. Not the comfort of denial or retreat from life’s hardship, but rather the comfort of embracing life’s hardships amid the joyful happiness of the Christmas season.

74 years ago, Frank Capra produced It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie about a man’s triumph over his chaotic unpredictable life. This movie’s title is also its message: Life is as wonderful as we make it. 2020 feels like the poster child of chaotic unpredictability, but this 74-year-old movie says clearly “been there, done that”. It comforts me to know that even in 2020 with a pandemic raging around us a wonderful life is ours for the living. A wonderful life is one lived in service to God and others.

2021 is, by the grace of God, another chance to have a wonderful life.

The Good Lie

the-good-lieSheila and I watched the movie “The Good Lie” this afternoon. You can do things like that when you’re retired.  The film is effective but short on context so let me offer a little for you.

The Sudanese Civil Wars spanned 1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005, The central government in Khartoum battled the rebel forces in the rest of the country. Million died and displaced millions more. Human rights abuses and slavery became rampant.

Sudan (now two countries) historically consisted of two main demographic groups. The north spoke Arabic, were mostly Muslim, and controlled the government. The sub-Saharan south spoke English and tribal languages, were mostly Christian, and felt disenfranchised by the government. In the 19th century, the British treated the north and south as two separate administrative entities.  In 1946 the north and south became a single administrative unit with Arabic as its official language. In 1956 Sudan became an independent country which ignited the nascent grassroots rebellion in the south. The Sudanese Liberation People’s Army eventually emerged to spearhead opposition to government control.  Now back to the movie.

A group of young children are innocently playing in a rural African village. Suddenly, a helicopter hovers overhead ominously followed by the arrival of gun-toting soldiers. Without any discernible provocation, they begin shooting wildly, burning huts, pillaging, and taking prisoners. Several of the village’s children escape the onslaught. They embark by foot on a 735-mile journey to a refugee camp in Kenya. Flash forward 13 years when four of them, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Mamere’s younger sister, Abital (Kuoth Wiel), still languish in the refugee camp.

Through some process not explained in the movie, these four are granted asylum in the USA. The boys end up in Kansas City, Kansas. Their sponsor is a church group but their representative can’t make it to the airport. Enter Carrie Davis (Reese Witherspoon) who we first see is rolling around in a motel room bed with some seemingly random guy. Carrie is not some altruistic do-gooder. She is simply doing her job, which is to fill job vacancies and African immigrants are a readily exploitable work force for minimum wage jobs. There is a surprising amount of humor in the film’s depiction of these young Sudanese villagers adjusting to US culture. They experience fast food, supermarkets, cell phones and even electric lights for the very first time. Their journey to become Americans without losing their cultural identity and values provides the plot for the rest of the film.

Even though predictable “The Good Lie” still affected me greatly. The title comes from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. Huck lies to protect Jim from slave trackers. The lie is unselfish and told to protect another even at the liars peril. Hence it is a good lie. See this movie and I think you’ll agree that it is well named.  (Google Huck Finn – I’m not doing all your work for you)

This is way-to-goa flawed film in some ways, but I give it my watch it with a friend vote! 

What do you think?