The Good: Excellent acting, Characters, Message
The Bad: Moments of musical direction, Dated qualities
The Basics: In a somewhat disjointed tale, Atticus Finch defends a black man in the South during the Depression while his children's curiosity puts them in a similar situation.
There is a temptation, I believe, to overrate movies that are considered "classics." Some classics certainly are worthy of being rated as perfect. Many, most - just like today's movies -, do not. Meryl Streep giving a great performance does not make for a perfect movie. Most films fall somewhere between that perfect high rating and the perfect low rating. I mention this because upon finally watching To Kill A Mockingbird, a great movie to be sure, I could not help but see it as something that was riddled with flaws, despite much of its strengths. Somehow, growing up, I managed never to experience To Kill A Mockingbird in school, but that changed last night when I saw it on my own.
Atticus Finch, guardian of young Scout and Jem, is a successful defense attorney. While raising his daughter and son, he finds himself embroiled in defending an accused rapist who happens to be black during the Depression. Finch, a decent man who defends the poor and downtrodden, is soon harassed by neighbors bent on killing his client. As the trial nears and passes, Finch works to do the right thing, which in this case is exonerating an innocent man.
But what the movie is truly about is Scout watching the trial unfold and the events of Atticus's trial mirroring her coming of age in the neighborhood. Nearby lives a shy hermit, of sorts, who Scout and Jem become curious about. Their curiosity leads them to trespass and to discover numerous artifacts left by the stranger - "Boo" Radley - in a nearby tree. The events culminate in an incident that becomes the foil of Atticus's trial.
To Kill A Mockingbird tells a decent enough story, with interesting and well-defined characters, but it does it in such a way that labors the patience of the viewer. Scout and Jem's interest in Radley occupies the beginning and the end of the film, serving as bookends. Far more interesting and compelling is the story of Atticus Finch and his defense of Tom Robinson. The trial blisteringly exposes the inequities of the judicial system and the flaws and dangers of ethnic inequality as it existed - and too often still exists - in the United States.
The movie picks up and becomes riveting for the trial and when the film becomes a courtroom drama, it is at its best. What makes it succeed is not the legal machinations one has become accustomed to on The Practice, L.A. Law, Law & Order, or any other number of courtroom dramas, but rather the revelations of the depths of character of the protagonists. Atticus Finch is a profoundly good man and his work to defend Tom Robinson is compelling for what it says about Finch as a lawyer, a father and a human being.
The problem is, the story keeps going on. In Family Guy, there is an episode ("A Griffin Family History") that finds the family about to die and Peter admitting that he does not like The Godfather, to which Lois responds, "It's speaking the language of subtlety." To Kill A Mockingbird speaks in a subtle language and it is a long way to go for the end. One suspects for the film it is either oversimplified or missing the lingual threads that tied together the two stories in the novel better, but here the connection between a-story and b-story is much more tenuous and the result is somewhat disappointing. In short, it feels like two movies and how they come together is hardly satisfying enough to connect the two.
The other thing that knocks the movie down is a very dated sense of musical direction. To Kill A Mockingbird telegraphs the music to lead the emotions of the viewer, when . . . well, more subtlety should have been engaged.
That said, To Kill A Mockingbird is a decent movie. Scout and Atticus, the two legitimate protagonists, are likable and they grow throughout the course of the movie. Atticus has a much more organic growth, while Scout's growth is much the result of external forces acting upon her.
Scout is ably played by cinematic newcomer (of 1962) Mary Badham. Badham is articulate and forceful as the tomboy Scout. She is given the task of acting with facial expressions alone at the movie's climax and she carries off the task well, convincing the viewer of her peril, confusion and desperation all with her eyes. That takes true talent.
It is Gregory Peck who defines To Kill A Mockingbird, though. Peck plays Finch and he does so with a sense of upright goodness that is easy to watch and hard not to enjoy. Peck becomes an instant archetype as Finch for moral rectitude and it's easy to see why no production of To Kill A Mockingbird has ever stepped out of the shadow of his performance. With his deep voice, strong body language and deliberate speech patterns, he portrays a profound dignity that completely sells the audience on his character.
Is To Kill A Mockingbird worth watching? Absolutely. It's a great movie. But it's not perfect and I refuse to rate it as if it were, simply because it is older.
For other films where ethnicity is an important issue, be sure to check out my reviews of:
In The Heat Of The Night
For other films, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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