Lawyers and critics worth their salt must share a morbid fear of getting it wrong. The greatest of them plunge forward anyhow, recklessly risking ruin for the sake of their duty. Without too close a comparison to the prosecutor who has imprisoned an innocent man or the defense attorney who has acquitted a murderer, we can surmise that the critic lifts pen to paper or finger to keyboard with a biting sense of agony: did I miss the point? If the critic does get it wrong, after all, it isn't a client or victim who will suffer, but the critic himself. Or herself.
Case in point: 1962, when Mr. and Mrs. Critic, the estimable and ever-feuding Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, agreed on the demerits of Lawrence of Arabia. What looks today to be the great masterpiece of the year (if not of cinema history) was rather rudely dismissed by Kael as a spectacle with a zero at its centre. Sarris, who went further, looks even more foolish in ever-wise hindsight. Among other bon mots, in escalation of sheer missing-the-point: "dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal"; "In my cultural adolescence I associated the name Lawrence with the initials D.H. rather than T.E."; and "Perhaps I am just plain tired of all these 'serious' moral films with no women in the cast." Sarris, in failing to be moved or even awed by Lawrence of Arabia while dismissing it as yet another shallow big-budget historical epic, shows himself to be missing the movie for the ad campaign.
And yet, as decades of nobly defeated lawyers (at least of the dramatic/cinematic breed) could tell you, there can be a certain honor in miscalculation. A few months after penning his irritated pan of Lawrence, Sarris authored a far more thoughtful - and far more devastating - dismissal of To Kill a Mockingbird, now as then a beloved adaptation of a cherished classic of children's literature. While the film's reputation seems indestructible today, and often for very good reasons, Sarris' arrows more often than not hit their mark. If he's too harsh on the film stylistically ("Before the intellectual confusion of the project is considered, it should be noted that this is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards"), disallowing the quiet poetry of the movie because it is occasionally forced, his observations on the movie's intellectual confusion are withering.
Among others: "I daresay the Maycomb courtroom is still segregated thirty years [later], and so much for Miss Lee's cleverly masked argument for gradualism." "When the Negro is shot (off screen) for attempting to escape, Peck is so upset that, by some inverted logic understood only by liberal southerners, he deplores the Negro's unwarranted impetuosity." "This is a heartwarming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous red-neck hardly cancel each other out." And finally: "It is too early to tell [if the Negro and red-neck are brothers under the skin], but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the white conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird."
When I say that Sarris is "wrong" here, it is admittedly in part an ironic assessment - a juxtaposition of his view with what has become the canonical one (at least among middlebrow audiences, but also tacitly by intellectuals, who do not seem to view Mockingbird's reputation with much resentment.) But I do like Mockingbird more than he does, think it is a worthier film than he appreciates (not only stylistically), and ultimately, feel that the film may be more ambiguous than he perceives. Nonetheless, or perhaps therefore, Sarris' criticism is a good place to start looking at the movie.
Among other things, To Kill a Mockingbird is a portrait of liberal futility. Whether it knows this or not is a point of contention: does it embody liberal futility, or observe it? If the film's sanitized racial politics (excepting the brief materialization of a quietly foreboding lynch mob, virtually all the white men are clearly good folks - save one who singlehandedly embodies all the displaced violence and cruelty and ignorance of the Jim Crow South; meanwhile, all the blacks are noble martyrs) preaches to the early-sixties liberal choir, Atticus Finch does anything but. In his famous courtroom speech, making the case for the defense, Atticus appeals to the jury's conscience, flattering them with the thought that they are not racist (a flattery they would hardly consider complimentary, but never mind), and forswears idealism in paradoxically idealistic formulations (seeing justice as a reality rather than an ideal). The verdict? See if you can guess.
Atticus hardly seems surprised, and neither are we. Nonetheless, when he leaves the courtroom, the segregated balcony - where all the black townspeople sat to observe this farce of justice - stands to honor him. For decades now, this scene has been celebrated as a testament to the liberal conscience, to American idealism. Yet what is it really? A failure. Atticus' only important goal in this scene is not to contribute some small share to a rising consciousness (hence Sarris' rebuke of Lee's supposed "gradualism"), nor to set an example for his children, nor to suffer for the town's sins since it's hardly he but rather his client who will suffer. What matters is if Atticus gets Tom Robinson off on a rape charge that is patently fabricated (the victim's beatings were administered by a left-handed attacker - Robinson's left hand was maimed when he was twelve, and guess what hand the victim's father signs with? Talk about a stacked deck!). He doesn't.
Could he? The story automatically seems to assume that the answer is no, and this gives Atticus an excuse to play to the reader (and later the viewer) with noble appeals and airtight evidence which will sway an enlightened audience, if not a Depression-era Southern jury. What does it matter? If a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If Atticus proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Tom Robinson is innocent and further that the racial mores of the community are abhorrent, all while Robinson himself is condemned and later rapidly dispatched offscreen, what does Atticus' firm rightness matter? Is the movie's assumption of futility (pace nobility) an escape hatch for the romantic in love with false causes - doubled as a hangman's drop-door for the condemned outsiders, whose ignominious fate it is to embody that cause?
Consider, as a contrast, John Ford's 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. Here the heroic American leader, the lawyer who is respected by the community even as he stands up for the little guy, the intellectual with the common touch, is also a canny politician. The youthful Lincoln, as portrayed masterfully by Henry Fonda, always exists uneasily between worlds - the lofty ideals of his beloved law books (and more romantically, the aching beauty of his wilderness world, which seems to embody a kind of divine justice) and the grimy realities of unruly democracy (a hardscrabble Illinois town here contrasted with the rightness of the natural world). Yet he negotiates between the two, compromising and bending the rules, in the service of the greater good.
When Lincoln stands before a jail cell, guarding his clients against an unruly lynch mob eager to string them up, he defuses the situation with a mixture of folksy jokes, homespun wisdom, physical intimidation, and subtle guilt-tripping. True, he tells one man to go home and read his bible, but the bulk of his successful intervention relies on - among other things - the assertion of a personal connection to the individuals forming the mob, the feigning of unsentimental selfishness (he pretends to value the prisoners only as his first clients, rather than as human beings) and the threat of physical violence. As embodied by Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch is also an imposing individual, but he's too noble to resort to violence, too lofty to offer wisecracks in lieu of platitudes. He too confronts a lynch mob in front of a jail cell, but it's his daughter who (perhaps unconsciously) provides the Lincolnesque savvy necessary to chase the ghouls away. Playing the innocence card, she inquires after the son of one potential lyncher (simultaneously, and subtly, reminding him of a debt he owes to her father).
It is unclear how Atticus would have held the lynchers at bay if his wily offspring hadn't stepped into the breach (coupled with her rhetoric, Atticus' son attacks one of the mob; between the two of them they have Lincoln's tactics covered). Would he have feebly recited the Constitution on the veranda as they dragged Robinson off to the hanging tree? Perhaps I am being unfair, unnecessarily cruel towards the man's admirable stoicism. Within the context of the film, Atticus is virtually powerless to stop the forces of racism and oppression and injustice. All he can possibly do is stand tall and firm, set an example, and hope against hope that eventually his moral conscience will find an echo. But I question whether or not Atticus couldn't get a little more done with a wilier approach. If he appealed to the jury's racism, made more of an effort to integrate himself into their company, in other words if he was a better lawyer, might Tom Robinson be set free? It's a question of pragmatism vs. idealism, and if Young Abe Lincoln is Barack Obama, Atticus is Jimmy Carter.
Yet Harper Lee may be aware of Atticus' ineffectualness. She based his character on her father and while the portrait glows with poignant admiration, there is also a touch of sensitively-rendered pity, an awareness that Atticus, for all his tragic grandeur, is still a bit myopic and perhaps naive. This comes through clearest in the ending in which the vile father of Tom Robinson's alleged victim attempts to kill Atticus' children, only to be killed in turn by Boo Radley, neighborhood recluse and childhood myth made real. So well-planted that his appearance is dramatically successful, Boo is nonetheless a deus ex machina, swooping in to render extralegal justice when Atticus' well of willpower and wisdom runs dry.
For once in the film, Atticus seems shaken and uncertain, and when the sheriff tells him (in effect) to hang the law and let the dead bury the dead, he acquiesces. Now we see the efficacy of a different, less passive approach to aggression (one that Atticus notably only endorses when his own children's lives are on the line), even if it is conveniently displaced onto the ethereal Boo, ghostly presence not only in name. Though he may be above the community's rules, and hence absolved from Atticus' appeals to a transcendent justice and unspoken obedience to a harsh order, Boo's mute presence speaks louder than words: if unable to redeem the persecuted, at least he's allowed to punish the oppressor.
But, of course, this is only one reading, and I have my doubts even as I write. Atticus is one man, but could not thousands of Atticuses, each personally committed to what is right (regardless of the numbers on his side) achieve justice? Could not this army of Atticuses be formed and expanded by the example of first one Atticus, then another, then another? Is this kind of gradualism the highest pragmatism? After all, within a few years of Sarris writing his review, those courtrooms were most likely desegregated and it was thanks to men and women, white and (predominantly) black, who - like Atticus - let their enemies spit in their faces without striking back, who made their speeches and stood their ground and spoke in terms of the highest ideals.
I don't have much further to go in my speculations, observations, and (perhaps) accusations. However, I hope my readers will delve into the discussion, picking up where I left off in a relay that perhaps began with Sarris' critique in 1962.
Meanwhile, by focusing on the ideas present in Mockingbird, I have not been able to deal with the film's texture and mood. Ironically, given my attention here, I find the courtroom scenes to be the least successful in the movie, even as they are its dramatic centerpiece. The movie's strongest element is its air of nostalgia, of an intermingled childhood eternal and childhood past, tinged with a darkness both abstract (beginning with that pan from the silhouetted leaves of an overhanging tree) and all-too-real. Indeed, it is the mixture of the film's specific social context with its universal themes and rituals which render the movie powerful to this day. As this piece winds to a close, I can't discuss too many examples of this power, but one will suffice.
The film's climactic sequence, evocatively described by the narrator - a grown-up Scout - as "our longest journey" combines elements of fairy tale (the brother and sister evoke Hansel and Gretel in their passage through the woods), eternal childhood rituals (I remember reading the book as a kid and suddenly feeling, when I reached this scene with its school plays and walks home in the night wearing goofy costumes, that it was taking place in a present I recognized, rather than a distant past), Southern gothic (Boo Radley), even traces of a Peanuts cartoon (that Ham costume, which makes the scene). A milieu, eerie but comfortably familiar to children of any era, is infiltrated by a dark force from the adult world, a manifestation of social and historical and political concerns, dropped into the world of melancholy but contented childhood as a suggestion of the evil that lurks without - an evil which is not mythic, nightmarish as it may seem to the children, but which has a name and a source. Whatever the problems of To Kill a Mockingbird, this evocation of childhood - situated half in its own private universe, half in the real world - is one thing the movie doesn't have to worry about getting wrong.