The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film with two essential messages, and I had to think a long time before choosing which aspect of the movie I wanted to write about. One message is to live life to the max. Make every day a masterpiece by participating in life, not just observing it. Another message is to value the work of every day because ultimately greatness comes through hard work, perseverance, and a daily dedication to perfection. I chose to amplify that message for this review.
Walter Mitty works for Life magazine and is in charge of cataloging its large storehouse of photo negatives, a seemingly boring job in which Walter takes pride, knowing that he is working with great photographers whose pictures are potentially life-transforming to the viewer. We learn that in the past Walter had an adventurous streak, but when his father died at a young age, Walter was forced to abandon his dreams and get a job to support his family. Therein lies the emotional core of the film. Walter lives a very mundane outward existence, but lives an imaginative inner life, daydreaming of scenarios in which he imagines that he is a man of decision and action. Hence, the title of the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Mitty for many years has worked with famed photojournalist Sean O’Connell, and Sean sends him negatives of his latest works including a photo that he thinks will be fitting for Life’s final print edition before it re-emerges as a strictly online publication. But there is a problem. The negative is missing from the contact sheet he sent Walter and Sean cannot be found to clarify the whereabouts of the missing negative. Walter then embarks on a real-life adventure trying to locate Sean. His travels take him to Greenland and Iceland, with a series of hair-raising and hilarious encounters.
An air of mystery surrounds both Sean and the missing negative. It becomes clear that Sean, an idiosyncratic artist, values individualism, but he also values the contribution of the little guys in the company who work ceaselessly to see that his work is seen as he sees it: a thing of beauty and meaning that transcends the moment.
The Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that “every man has his hour.” The artist may be in the limelight but those who work laboriously behind the scenes also deserve recognition for their contributions. Both have their hour in the sun. Moreover, in Judaism there is the notion that every person has his unique mission in the world. When Jacob on his deathbed gives his blessing to each of his twelve sons, the blessing reflects the unique personality of each one. They are parts of one united family, but they fulfill their destinies in their own special ways. A classic example is the symbiotic relationship between the brothers Yisachar and Zebulon. Yisachar is charged with devoting his life to the study and teaching of Torah; Zebulon is charged with providing the financial support which underpins that holy work. Both are necessary for the ultimate destiny of the Jewish nation to be secured.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a paean to the average man who labors diligently in his job each and every day. The public accolades may never come to him, but this does not devalue the work that is being done. In his own special way, his contribution behind the scenes may be more important than the one for whom he works. Let us praise the quiet ones who abide by the unwritten rules of excellence.