To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

(On DVD, December 2017) on the one hand, it seems to me that the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is structurally lopsided. It spends a lot of time on a trial in which a black man is accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, but that’s not the beginning nor the end of the story, which spends even more time watching over three kids as they grow up in an absurdly racist Southern town with their loving father. In modern terms, this would be a non-starter: the script would be rewritten to emphasize the trial, everything else shuffled to the side. But this is not a modern film and it’s not meant to be a trial movie—it’s adapted from a slice-of-life novel in which the trial is important but hardly the point of it all. To Kill a Mockingbird being shown from the kids’ perspective, it even comes as a clever reframing of a classic story through a slightly alien perspective. But Harper Lee’s adaptation aside, the film’s single biggest asset is Gregory Peck’s impeccable performance as impossibly virtuous attorney Atticus Finch. Not enough good can be written about Peck and his role—it’s the kind of award-winning performance that doesn’t just impress but inspire us all to become better persons. He carries the rest of the meandering movie by virtue of being a terrific dad, a righteous lawyer … and (the movie takes great care to point out) a terrific marksman able to put down a rabid dog with a single shot. Never mind the whimper of a conclusion (featuring no less than an already old-looking Robert Duvall)—the rest of the film is fine, but Peck is extraordinary. 

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