This is not a review. This is a unique and wonderful film, but we all know that. I came to appreciate it late because I have a long-standing aversion to “angel” stories, especially when heavenly forces help good to triumph over evil. But IAWL is not sentimental in the sugary sense. It’s hard-nosed and often brutally frank about how even decent people are quick to blame others for misfortune. The scene where the young George Bailey confronts the pharmacist he works for with the truth about why he’s being punished is one of the most emotionally penetrating scenes in American film.
But this is not an appreciation either. I want instead to look at the reasons why the film is so beloved today. It has come to signify a period in American history when people knew what it meant to live in a community; when a sense of personal responsibility could be counted on to summon the best in one’s character. At the end of the film, the good people of the town save George Bailey from prison by recognizing how much they have always benefited from George’s devotion to that code of responsibility, and of how deficient they were compared to him.
Looking at the film today, you see just how much our understanding of democracy has changed. The story concerns many of the same things that are part of our current political scene. It deals with banking, with charges of criminal fraud, with the disruption of the economy due to inaccurate information and with the resulting mass panic that threatens to bring down the whole system. The crisis is averted when the people of Bedford Falls take action by replacing the lost money with their own, as a gesture of confidence in a man they admire and trust.
Trust is the operative word here. As a banker for the town’s savings and loan, George is a powerful person in the city’s economy. But he has always shown a personal commitment to the needs of the townspeople, his clients. Unlike Jimmy Stewart’s other small-town American, Jefferson Smith (in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also directed by Frank Capra), he has spent a lifetime as a productive citizen in the same town where he was born. Without that trust, the action of the townspeople wouldn’t make any sense. Why should one’s neighbors give their own property as a gift, unasked, just to save another person? But audiences accepted this as the natural and right thing to do.
Stepping back from this story, we notice an important omission: the role of government. There is none in the film. And we don’t miss it because Bedford Falls comes to represent a functioning democracy in microcosm. Even though we know that America is not really a small town where everyone knows everyone else by name – which is not too difficult when the entire population does not exceed the number of contract players at RKO Pictures – we can relate to the values exhibited by these people as necessary for the preservation of a decent and prosperous society anywhere.
But anyone looking at American culture today will have to admit that this sense of a communal identity has vanished. There is an emphasis in the culture on defining people by labels, whether by identifiable traits, such as race or income, or by ideological choice. Surveys are published – the red meat of the pundits – that purport to show the preferences of three hundred million Americans based on checklists from a thousand or so strangers which are then interpreted by statisticians who will never meet any of the people who completed the survey. This cultural shift did not happen by accident; it was a pre-determined campaign to reformulate the discussion of national policy in the least personal way. It allows the two major political parties, the mass media and other power-seeking groups to pull the camera back to the long shot, so to speak, so that we only see ourselves in purely statistical terms. It’s a sly strategy because policy issues can then be – falsely – characterized as beyond the reach of the average citizen. After all, if the problem of, say, unemployment is presented, repeatedly, in terms of a national unemployment rate of 6 or 7 percent, this effectively transfers it to a place where only remote power figures in Washington, abetted by committees of technocrats, can be counted on to be effective. Almost imperceptibly, the role of the citizen is diminished in the public’s mind. Even though you may know some unemployed people personally, you would no longer think of taking the kind of action that the people of Bedford Falls would take.
I’m not suggesting that we, as a country, are rejecting national government en masse in favor of direct local control of our communities. But the development of vital and growing social movements like the Tea Party and the rise of independents, who reject identification with either of the two major parties, indicate a distrust of the very vocabulary of political discourse today. The debate now is between massive, distant institutions who are out to destroy each other, while their leaders talk to their followers as if the country will collapse without total victory. We are deluged daily with charts and statistics that are claimed to show, decisively, just how stupid and dangerous the other side is, and which demand immediate action. But if the failure to enact these big mega-programs would be so catastrophic, how do you explain the growing movement for non-engagement and for delaying action, even to the point of throwing the country into bankruptcy? Why has the resistance to Obamacare not disappeared by now?
I’m not saying that millions of disaffected Americans believe that we can ever return to the view of democracy shown in It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, most of them probably know that Bedford Falls was as much of a fantasy as George’s guardian angel. But it should be obvious that its enormous popularity and significance today is a reflection of a growing trend: our rejection of the increasingly punitive oversight of our personal liberties by the federal government.