Some people watch the movie Groundhog Day every February 2. Not me. The story is about a character who has to live the same day over and over. Watching the movie over and over is just—well, life begins to imitate art. Nevertheless, Groundhog Day is a thought-provoking movie about one of the most universal of themes: freedom.
The main character is Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a TV weatherman who is sent to report on the Groundhog Day ceremony at Punxsutawney, PA.
Everything goes according to schedule until it’s time to leave town. Then Phil and the TV crew are trapped by a blizzard and have to stay an extra night. But when Phil wakes up the next day, he finds that it is still Groundhog Day: the same song is on the radio, and he has the same job to do all over again. The same is true the next day … and the next day … and the next.
At first, Phil feels trapped. Then, however, he realizes that there could be advantages to having the same day over and over and over. That gives us the movie’s first definition of freedom:
1. Freedom is doing whatever you want
Phil sees that, if there’s no tomorrow, “We could do whatever we wanted … All your life, it’s clean up your room, pick up your feet, be nice to your little sister, take it like a man.” Then he concludes, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.” Rules, after all, are surely the opposite of freedom. Now, he doesn’t have to worry about anything: there need be no responsibility because there can be no consequences. He begins to live accordingly. For a time, it is fun.
The movie then offers us a second definition of freedom:
2. Freedom is becoming the best you can be
Phil gradually realises that his day offers opportunities to help others. Little by little he begins to take those opportunities: catching a child falling out of a tree, changing a flat tire, saving a man from choking. And he changes.
There is a strange paradox here. The first freedom seems to promise him breadth, but it actually makes Phil a more one-dimensional and unattractive person. This second kind of freedom looks narrower. After all, it requires him to pay attention, to consider others, to give up some of the things he naturally prefers. Yet it turns out to be the entrance to a wider place where he becomes more human, more himself.
In general, I suspect this is what we most often mean when we talk about freedom: freedom to pursue the things that will enable us to become the best we are capable of becoming.
However, there are problems with this definition too. After all, we may not be the best judges of the best we can be. And what we are best at may not always be attainable: we may fail a course or not get a promotion. Perhaps someone dies, or we find we have to care for an aging parent, and we feel held back.
What becomes of freedom then? Fortunately, there is a deeper meaning, a third definition. After all, Phil is still not out of the Groundhog Day trap. The third is this:
3. Freedom is belonging to someone who loves you
At the end of the movie, during a Groundhog Day party, there is a bachelor auction. Two women bid for Phil’s services. Rita (Andie MacDowell, his TV producer), is horrified at their low bids, empties her purse, and bids everything she has: $339.88. Her bid is successful: he is hers.
It is this sacrifice of all Rita has which finally sets Phil free—in the obvious sense that when he wakes up next morning it is (finally) February 3.
There is a paradox here: when Phil was trapped in time, he experienced a certain kind of freedom. Now he is in another sense trapped—in a relationship—and as a result a new kind of freedom is possible.
Many people have known the freedom that comes from committed, loving relationships—with a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a friend, a significant other. Because of that relationship, where we have been accepted and nurtured, we have experienced the freedom to be ourselves, to live with assurance, to take risks, to fail, and even (for some of us even harder) to succeed.
If this is true of a human being—that they can give that kind of freedom—in Christian understanding, it is even more true of God. According to Jesus, that nurturing parent, that accepting friend, is a reflection of what God is like.
But the God Jesus taught about is also a God who came after us and brought us back to the family of God. Rita emptied her wallet to buy the one she loved. Christian understanding is that in Jesus God’s very life was emptied out to buy back …us.
This means that true freedom is belonging to the God who made us, who loves us, who knows what we are meant to be—and who gave everything to win our friendship. But God gives us a further, ultimate freedom: the freedom to accept this friendship or to reject it. And that freedom is the scariest of all.
So, Groundhog Day. Lots to think about. If you’ve never watched the movie, you really should. But once is enough.