It's a Wonderful Life
No, Really, I Swear, It's a Wonderful Life: Truth and Lies in Pottersville
It’s a Wonderful Life's hero, George Bailey can fuck himself. He is a handsome man played by a famous tall, handsome white man. He has a house. He has children. He has a wife that loves him and he has a job. He is loved by his town and loved even by forces beyond his ken who descend from Heaven itself to prove that his cis white hetero handsome life is worth having lived and that the world would be impoverished without him. That sounds like some 50 megaton privilege. It's hard to relate to or feel sorry for someone who has all this going for him when the holidays remind us of the promise we never saw coming to fruition.
But hold on a sec. Let's look at this closer. George Bailey begins It's a Wonderful Life as a kid with what feels like infinite potential. He works at the druggist as soon as he’s able to work and collects National Geographics, dreaming of the places he’ll go and the things he will build. George has high hopes and a good head on his shoulders and the excess and fun of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties spread out before him. There was a time when we too weren’t utterly fucked. The prosperity of the 90s presented us with the promise of earning English degrees, starting cool grunge bands and living our bliss. What became of it was one less World Trade Center, nebulous war without end and a flagging economy.
George sees opportunities get away from him, sees war and duty to his family and community taking precedence over his own life. Clarence, George's angel in training bares witness to him making sacrifice after sacrifice because he is a good man doing what must be done. He's not a hero because the movie wants you to think he's special, he's a hero because he makes tough choices. He isn't rich or powerful or lucky, he simply cares and sees potential for a town where people can raise families, make a decent living and afford their own home, even if it means the Bailey Brothers Savings and Loan takes a financial hit doing so.
It would not be easy for millennials or xennials to become a Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne but It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that we can be a George Bailey, even if it means facing dehumanization from capitalism and greed run amok. He saves his brother’s life, saves Mr. Gower the druggist from life in jail, yet still has to deal with the realities of Mr. Potter and the stranglehold he maintains over town. He still has to face the knowledge that there’s only so much he can change and that the system measures a man’s value on his bank account. It’s easy for us to see and identify with and feel for someone who has tried to do their best but is broken when he realizes that as Mr. Potter says, he’s “worth more dead than alive.”
And, regardless of one’s politics, moments like that resonate. Mounting debt, uncertain future and feelings of powerlessness and standards we can’t meet crush us. There’s a moment in It’s a Wonderful Life when we see gentle and charismatic and amazing Jimmy Stewart break down and scream at his family and his child’s teacher and he can’t take another moment of life and sees no way out. He’s not an untouchable saint and he’s not beyond depression just because he has been good to those around him and is loved by his wife and family. He is left wishing he was never born.
George stands up to the system by telling off Mr. Potter but has still ended up on the ropes and still he can't see his value without backing off and examining the big picture via a walk through the world without him. When millennials walk around an America ablaze with things we can't afford, seeing turmoil and bigotry tearing apart our friendships and families, it can be hard to retain our sense of value or feel the weight of our actions. We hear time and again what we don't deserve. These are things ranging from college to healthcare, to food and water. A brokenhearted, suicidal hero in a Christmas movie might well be the one most like us.
Through George we get to see something truly revolutionary and shocking: that our value is not measured by what we make or even if we have become the self we wish we were. There are Henry Potters in this country and they would rather we not feel good and justified for getting in their faces and calling them “warped, frustrated old men”. They would rather we be the ones who feel like utter shit even when they profit off war, corruption and poverty. That doesn't matter when you reach the breaking point and you can't see what in you had value.
It's a Wonderful Life matters because it tells us not that money won't buy happiness and to be happy with what we've got, but that we are being lied to. We, who see ourselves as nobody forget the friends we've talked down from the edge and the art we've made and the connections and relationships that fail to branch out. We have been made to feel like we have failed and we will never see what success looks like. The value of life declines in Pottersville, the dystopian world where George was never born, a vision of a society given over to avarice and apathy and that is where we are now.
But we are alive and our accomplishments and connections matter. The friend on the edge, the art we made was made, even if poverty, antintellectualism and ingratitude tell us otherwise. The life valued beneath a tax break for the wealthiest men on Earth has touched many, and the standards of a society that values these things accordingly are more the problem than the refusal to embrace them could ever be. Clarence the angel tells George that “no man is a failure if he has friends”. This is the truth, no matter what the greed that director Capra warned us away from wants us to think.
Tonight is Christmas Eve and you matter.