The essay argues that the small-town life Capra’s hero embraces at the end is, in fact, terrifyingly and asphyxiatingly oppressive, and that the movie is all about resigning oneself to the loss of dreams, to being trapped in a life of compromise, small-mindedness and conformity. He even asserts that the “Pottersville” of the alternate reality in which Jimmy Stewart’s George was never born — filled with booze and vice — is a lot more fun than boring New Bedford, where The Bells of St. Mary’s is all that passes for entertainment.
Some commenters agree, and also point to the movie’s disturbing gender ideology: without George in her life, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has become — the horror! — a single, childless librarian. One poster mentions (approvingly) that Ayn Rand hated this movie because of its emphasis on self-sacrifice and the compromises of adult life. Others defend close-knit communities as well as the idea that adulthood is about accepting compromises and limits, and that life’s true satisfaction comes not from chasing adolescent dreams but from family, friends, and community.
This is where I’m always reminded of a famous Niels Bohr quote:
“The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood; the opposite of a great truth is another truth.”
There is a great truth in the Randian/libertarian celebration of the free individual, of the stubborn pursuit of one’s dreams and visions, of the struggle against limits. There is also a great truth in the conservative/communitarian vision that emphasizes relationships and acceptance of reasonable compromises and limits. Both of these starkly different approaches to life have value — are, in fact, necessary to a healthy culture, which needs both roots and wings. (I believe the origin of this metaphor is this quote by American motivational speaker Dennis Waitley.) So do the vast majority of individuals, even if some can be perfectly happy pursuing their individualist dreams with no human ties and some can be perfectly happy living completely for others.
Of course, each vision also has a seamy side. A lot of “autonomous individuals” who pride themselves on never compromising and never “settling” are not Randian Howard Roarks but obnoxious, egotistical jerks with a very exaggerated notion of their own talent. A lot of lives that revolve around family, community and self-sacrifice are poisoned by undercurrents of bitterness, resentments, and suppressed conflicts. And so on.
But in the spirit of the holiday, let’s focus on the positives. Here’s to roots and wings. And to the fact that American culture is big enough to accommodate Frank Capra and Ayn Rand.