The wonderful life of George Bailey

by Kevin Birnbaum

It's_A_Wonderful_LifeI’m just not a crier. I didn’t cry at my wedding. I didn’t cry when my son was born. I once went several years without shedding a tear. But every year around this time, when I get to the end of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, I break down and bawl like a baby. I can’t help it. It’s a beautiful movie, and the last scene approaches the theoretical maximum of heartwarmingness.

The story is familiar to just about everyone in America, right? Facing financial ruin and criminal charges, George Bailey is about to jump off a bridge when he’s interrupted by an angel, who shows George how his lifetime of self-sacrifice has changed the lives of everyone around him for the better.

In the final scene, the entire community rallies around George, everyone pitching in to raise the cash George needs to stay afloat. His home overflows with grateful friends and good cheer, his brother offers a toast to “the richest man in town,” and I lose it every time. It’s just so … wonderful.

A couple years ago there was an essay on First Things‘ website that got my love for the movie completely wrong. Joe Carter wrote:

Capra’s audience flatters themselves by believing the message of Wonderful Life is that their own lives are just as worthy, just as noble, and just as wonderful as George Bailey’s. … [T]hey truly believe they are just like Capra’s hero.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I don’t get choked up thinking about how wonderful I am. That final scene gets to me not just because it’s beautiful, but because it reminds me how far I fall short of the wonderful, selfless example of George Bailey.

Throughout his life, George forsakes his own dreams and comfort for the sake of others, never seeking repayment or recognition. I’m not like that. And I wonder: If I were ever in trouble, how many people would rally to support me? Who would even care? And why should they? Whose life have I ever improved?

It’s a Wonderful Life makes me cry because it makes me want to be a better person.