Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Doing the Dirty Work

Harper Lee's novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is one I would recommend to anyone.

One of my journalism students says he requires his children to read it when they reach a certain age, and I applaud him for that. More parents should encourage their children to read.

But that's another issue entirely.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the debut of the movie version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I would recommend it to anyone as well.

But I would recommend reading the book first.

The unavoidable lesson of the story is that there are people in the world who do society's dirty work, and that is something that isn't always appreciated as it should be.

There are those who do the physically dirty work, of course — the ones who have to collect and sort through trash or debris, for example — and the ones who must do the psychologically dirty work — for example, the people who carry out state–mandated executions or whose work requires them to persuade juries to impose such death sentences.

Atticus Finch, the hero of "To Kill a Mockingbird," was such a person, another character observed — a man who was born to do society's dirty work. He was a defense attorney, and he had the most thankless job imaginable in the Depression–era South. He had to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman.

In half a century, the film has been praised repeatedly. The American Film Institute ranks it #25 on AFI's Top 100 movies list — and deservedly so.

AFI ranked Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch as the top film hero of all time, and that's a tough one to argue with. In both the book and the movie, Atticus was good and honest, the kind of man whose word was his bond, who felt actions spoke louder than words and who never felt inclined to draw attention to his actions.

If one were to choose a character from a book or movie to admire and to emulate, there could be none better than Atticus Finch.

There are many great scenes in "To Kill a Mockingbird," but, if I had to choose one that I simply had to see, it would be the one where Atticus shoots down a rabid dog in the street. From quite a distance. With a single shot.

His son, who was embarrassed because Atticus declined to play football for the Methodists and chafed at Atticus' refusal to let him have a gun, was astonished and it showed.

"What's the matter, boy?" the sheriff asked him. "Didn't you know your daddy is the best shot in this county?"

Atticus was full of surprises. But, in many ways, he was as transparent as glass. He was the essence of nobility because he was so unself–conscious about it.

Miss Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) saw what Atticus was and tried to explain it to his son at a point in the story where the injustices of the world were painfully clear.

"Some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us," she said. "Your father is one of them."

It may be the most moving line in the movie — because it is so direct.

The book still holds up after half a century. So does the movie — and Gregory Peck's performance.