In Oscar movies, there is no gridlock

February 22, 2013

Everyone in America knows that we live in times of gridlock. We despair of anything really getting done, as we bump from one budgetary crisis to another. Nothing seems to work, and our expectations have plummeted. But there is a place where, against the odds, people seem to accomplish exactly what they desire – a place where no obstacle is insuperable. That place is Hollywood.

Not Hollywood as a physical location but the Hollywood of the imagination. If you look at this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture, you will find that – as disparate as their subjects are – many of them share a thematic bond. These films are about efficacy. They are about the ability of people, and even institutions, to get things done – whether it is smuggling diplomats out of revolutionary Iran, or killing Osama bin Laden, or wreaking vengeance on a powerful plantation owner and slaveholder in the antebellum South, or toppling the French monarchy, or at least setting the process in motion.

Americans have become accustomed to inertia. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, pro-gun folks and anti-gun folks, pro-choice and anti-choice, pro-immigration and anti-immigration – everyone seems to be engaged in a standoff.

American movies have generally functioned as an antidote to our own sense of helplessness. They are, after all, predicated on vicariousness. As the critic Michael Woods explained, our movies typically take our problems and then paper them over, making them disappear.

But because movies are also sensitive to the zeitgeist and not just to our continual psychological need for imaginative empowerment, they can also capture a national mood. The noir films of the late 1940s and early 1950s spoke to postwar anxieties, without necessarily assuaging them. The downbeat films of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s – from Bonnie and Clyde to Chinatown and Nashville – spoke to the angst prompted by the Vietnam War and then Watergate and the putative corruption of the American soul without hiding it.

This year’s Oscar crop both addresses the zeitgeist of impotence and frustration and provides audiences with a vicarious solution. (See Frank Rich’s very different interpretation here.) At least five of the Best Picture nominees – Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty – demonstrate how things get done even when the hurdles seem insurmountable. They remind us that we are neither entirely helpless nor hopeless – that we can prevail. And they do so in ways that are subtle and even surprising.

Efficacy is most apparent in the two movies that specifically address modern political dilemmas: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo presents a seemingly irresolvable situation: How can the government sneak six embassy workers out of revolutionary Iran at the very time that nation is holding 52 other Americans hostage? Even as President Jimmy Carter proves powerless to free the primary hostage group, much less this small contingent, the film depicts how the CIA, through a particularly resourceful agent, hatches a plan to sneak them out under the guise of their being part of a crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie. The plan succeeds through ingenuity, daring and institutional risk-taking.

Similarly in Zero Dark Thirty, which has been excoriated by critics who say it condones torture, the deeper message is how the persistence – 10 years of persistence! – of a single CIA operative along with the agency’s various intelligence-gathering capabilities and the cool efficiency of the Navy SEALs leads to the killing of bin Laden. If the film celebrates anything, it is how personal feelings can infiltrate a seemingly impersonal institution and actuate that institution. Things get done.

If Argo and Zero Dark Thirty deal explicitly with modern politics, Lincoln has been regarded by many critics as a political parable for our time. As the film tells it, President Abraham Lincoln cajoles a reluctant House of Representatives into passing the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. But the president succeeds not through the force of his political power or even the force of his moral authority, which is how a hagiographic movie would have portrayed it. He succeeds by appealing to his opponents’ basest political, financial and personal instincts. Essentially, he buys them off because that’s what it takes to get things done.

Django Unchained may seem a more traditional film, depending as it does on the traditional means of redress in many of our most popular films: violence. It is a revenge fantasy.

But while it shows the efficacy of a bullet, it also departs from its action forebears in at least one significant respect. Most revenge fantasies provide the catharsis of near-instant gratification. Django’s revenge brews for years, as Zero Dark Thirty’s does or Les Miserables does. He plots his revenge through a long, complicated scheme, which leads to another subliminal message: Success is possible, but it may take patience and fortitude.

It takes patience because the heavies in all these films are not stock comic book villains, neither super-cool sociopaths nor frothing psychopaths. They are likely to be self-possessed and clever – people to reckon with and not just destroy. Nor are they renegades from society, hell-bent on leveling the established order. One thing that makes them so formidable is that they are embedded in the established order – the Iranians in Iran, bin Laden in al Qaeda, Lincoln’s opposition in their own political culture, Django’s slave-owner Calvin Candie in the Old South, and Les Miz’s Javert in the French police. They are as much a part of society as our own forces of dysfunction, especially the Congress.

Still, all these films purvey the idea that with cunning, intelligence, diligence, pain-staking detective work, psychological manipulation and, in the case of Les Miz, dedication to the cause – not just through brute force – victory is entirely possible. These films are about the efficacy of the human soul and mind, not the gun.

That is Oscar’s primary lesson this year. Yes, things can get done, but not in the ways they typically get done in our movies: through a singular act of violent heroism or moral courage.

In each of these films, the protagonist faces huge, immovable forces. Just as we do. Yet no one succumbs to a sense of impotence. In the end, things can get done, perhaps glacially, perhaps by less than sublime means, but things can get done.


PHOTO (Top): Best Picture nominees include (clockwise from top left) Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Miserables, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. REUTERS/Combination

PHOTO (Insert): An Oscar statuette. REUTERS/John Gress



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