Excerpt from Father's Day: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Excerpt from Father’s Day: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Over the next few days, Ryan offers a preview of his new e-book, Love and Family at 24 Frames Per Second: Fatherhood and Films Passed Down Through the Generations.

OverallWhen I was a boy, I was no different from most young kids in thinking that my dad was a superhero. He could run really fast (and still can at 65), lift heavy objects, fix cars, and knew just about everything. I envisioned my dad as James Bond or John McClane, a larger-than-life hero who was too cool for the rest of the world. As I grew up, I realized my dad wasn’t a superhero; he couldn’t defeat countless ninjas with his bare hands, and he was as human as the rest of us. I started to see my dad not as James Bond, but as Atticus Finch. And that is the greatest compliment that I could give him.

Atticus Finch is the father in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but for me he will always be Gregory Peck from the 1962 film version of the book. I believe that Peck gives one of the top 10 performances of all time in this film and is the template for what we all hope and dream our dads can be—or what we can be as parents. Peck was a towering figure with his broad 6-foot-3 frame and booming voice and played the hero very well. Yet in To Kill a Mockingbird he had to be a sweet and loving father while at the same time a beacon of righteousness that the whole town could get behind. This role could have gone wrong in a number of ways because seeing a paragon go about his day can be preachy and outright dull. Yet Peck and director Robert Mulligan tone down Atticus’s hero status and show a man just trying to get through each day.An unfortunate necessityWhen you step back and look at Atticus’s life, you see that he has had a pretty rough go of it. His wife died, leaving him to raise two small children on his own; he is a lawyer in a Mississippi town in the 1930s, where the Depression has hit very hard and where money for anything is scarce; and he has been chosen to defend a case that is unwinnable in that time and place: a black man accused of raping a white woman. Even though Atticus has reason, the facts, and the truth on his side, he knows how the jury is going to vote. He goes so far as to tell his defendant, Tom Robinson, not to get discouraged by the first trial because they are in it for the long haul. Even though he knows he has a slim chance of victory, he takes the case and does his best. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Atticus gives a closing statement that is not just about the case but about the system in general. He pleads for the jury to listen to reason, to do the right thing, and he says that the court should be colorblind. He knows that this won’t happen, but this is the world he wishes he could live in. This leads into my favorite scene, which follows the guilty verdict. Atticus leaves the courthouse, and all the African American townspeople who came to watch the trial stand up in a show of respect for him.

That scene gives me shivers every time I watch it because of the respect these people have for a man who has just lost. He didn’t get Tom off, and he hadn’t expected to, but still he tried, he fought, he scrambled, and he gave it his all, even though he (and everyone else) knew that he would lose. That is what the people respected. Like I said, it is easy to fantasize about your dad being like James Bond and never making a mistake, always knowing what to do and say, and getting the bad guy in the end. But this is a fantasy that no dad can live up to. There is something very human and real about Atticus that reaches us all. My dad has been on the losing end of fights that he fought because they were right, and I loved and respected him more for his actions. It is easy to stand aside and not make waves in the status quo. It is harder to be that voice of dissent, to state your opinion and be prepared to take the  consequences. If my job were on the line and I could be fired or severely punished for my actions, I don’t know if I could take the difficult road of standing up for my beliefs and fighting for what’s right. I might just slip silently into the background, letting everything stay the same. Would I have given my all to the Tom Robinson case if I were a lawyer? I don’t know. But I do know that, like Atticus, my dad would have given 110 percent.

The other thing that makes Atticus Finch such a great example of good character and fatherhood is his soft demeanor. The story is told from the perspective of Scout, Atticus’s young daughter, so Peck is usually framed to appear even bigger than he was, because that is how Atticus’s kids would have seen him, as a giant in the world. Yet he is a gentle giant, quiet and loving, who never raises his voice or uses his size to intimidate Scout and her brother, Jem. The two kids don’t want to get in trouble with Atticus not because of his size or temperament but more because they don’t want to disappoint him.

This is again where I am reminded of my father. He is a tall guy at 6 feet and has a booming voice, but I cannot recall a time when I was young that he yelled at me. He never made me scared of him in any way, and I knew that he loved me without him having to say the words. It is easy to raise your voice, to threaten kids with punishment when they are out of line, but it is much harder to step away from the situation, get your bearings, and come back ready to deal with the problems. I know I wasn’t a perfect kid, and there were probably many times that my dad was annoyed at me or just tired, but he never showed it.Your father's passin'Not showing what bothers him is another of Atticus’s traits. The movie is set in the ’30s and was made in the ’60s, decades in which the ideal man had a stoic reserve. He was never worried or sad, never broke a sweat. This was the way men should be, and Peck’s performance both strengthened and subverted this stereotype. After Atticus finds out that Tom has been killed, he takes a moment to steady himself, to gain his composure before he walks over to Jem and Scout, and I love the way this moment is shot. Since the story is told from Scout’s perspective, we stay with her as Atticus goes off to hear the news. We pick up pieces of the conversation and know what happened, but we don’t see Atticus lose his cool. Peck keeps his back to the camera, so all we see is him quietly looking off into the distance, trying to keep calm. It would have been easy to close up on his face to show the anguish and the toll that news took, but it is so much more powerful to be put in the kids’ shoes. As a child, you don’t start worrying until you see your parents worry, and Atticus, with his move, shields Jem and Scout for a little longer from the awful truth that life can be really unfair. This strengthens the stereotype that American males shouldn’t show emotion, but later in the film, you see Atticus really concerned after his children are attacked in the woods. Peck’s face is filled with worry and fear when he runs out of the house to check on Scout. The fact that the movie ends with Atticus staying in Jem’s room all night, watching over his hurt son, shows that Atticus might be able to compartmentalize most things, but when it comes to his kids he is as vulnerable as the rest of us.

Now as a father myself, I don’t want to be James Bond or John McClane. I want to be Atticus Finch. I don’t want to be seen as the coolest dad in the neighborhood. (If that happens, great, but it isn’t what I am striving for in my day-to-day life.) What I want is to be loving, patient, and caring and set a good example for my two daughters. I don’t mind if they see me as boring or are a bit embarrassed by me. When they are in their 20s and 30s and start having families of their own, I want them to be able to look back and know that I loved them, that I supported them, that I was there for them. Being a cool dad is easy; being a dad that a child can look up to is a lot harder. Many times when I am struggling with a problem in life or trying to be a good father, I stop and think, “What would my dad do?” and that helps me. Atticus Finch is the best dad in the film world, and the world is lucky to have that wonderful performance by Gregory Peck. I think my dad is the best father in the real world, and my sister and I are lucky to have him. I hope that in 15 years my girls feel the same way about me. Sure, it might be awesome to be a suave superspy, but I would rather be man like Atticus Finch any day.

Posted by Ryan

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