EDITOR’S NOTE:OK, campers, rise and shine! It’s become a Groundhog’s Day tradition around here to run this cover story from the February 14, 2005, issue of National Review over and over and over . . .
Here’s a line you’ll either recognize or you won’t: “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” If you don’t recognize this little gem, you’ve either never seen Groundhog Day or you’re not a fan of what is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the last 40 years. As the day of the groundhog again approaches, it seems only fitting to celebrate what will almost undoubtedly join It’s a Wonderful Life in the pantheon of America’s most uplifting, morally serious, enjoyable, and timeless movies.
When I set out to write this article, I thought it’d be fun to do a quirky homage to an offbeat flick, one I think is brilliant as both comedy and moral philosophy. But while doing what I intended to be cursory research — how much reporting do you need for a review of a twelve-year-old movie that plays constantly on cable? — I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest. In the years since its release the film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and followers of the oppressed Chinese Falun Gong movement. Meanwhile, the Internet brims with weighty philosophical treatises on the deep Platonist, Aristotelian, and existentialist themes providing the skin and bones beneath the film’s clown makeup. On National Review Online’s group blog, The Corner, I asked readers to send in their views on the film. Over 200 e-mails later I had learned that countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches. Several pastors sent me excerpts from sermons in which Groundhog Day was the central metaphor. And dozens of committed Christians of all denominations related that it was one of their most cherished movies.
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted a film series on “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” two years ago, it opened with Groundhog Day. The rest of the films were drawn from the ranks of turgid and bleak intellectual cinema, including standards from Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. According to the New York Times, curators of the series were stunned to discover that so many of the 35 leading literary and religious scholars who had been polled to pick the series entries had chosen Groundhog Day that a spat had broken out among the scholars over who would get to write about the film for the catalogue. In a wonderful essay for the Christian magazine Touchstone, theology professor Michael P. Foley wrote that Groundhog Day is “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, has cited Groundhog Day more than once as one of the few cultural achievements of recent times that will be remembered centuries from now. He was quoted in The New Yorker declaring, “It is a brilliant moral fable offering an Aristotelian view of the world.”
I know what you’re thinking: We’re talking about the movie in which Bill Murray tells a big rat sitting on his lap, “Don’t drive angry,” right? Yep, that’s the one. You might like to know that the rodent in question is actually Jesus — at least that’s what film historian Michael Bronski told the Times. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”
That may be going overboard, but something important is going on here. What is it about this ostensibly farcical film about a wisecracking weatherman that speaks to so many on such a deep spiritual level?