The Oscars, which will be presented Sunday, do something more than honor the “best” films. They give us a glimpse into ourselves. Our movies, especially those that strike a national nerve, as Oscar nominees often do, are an expression of the nation’s collective consciousness, providing what you might call an annual Oscar State of the Union. They tell us where we stand. And this year’s State of the Union seems consumed with one issue: guilt.
When you look at the nine Best Picture nominees, you discover that the majority are not only deeply ambivalent about the United States, but that they suggest we Americans aren’t all that comfortable with ourselves either. We doubt ourselves and our values — even those things we ostensibly celebrate. We feel conflicted. We are haunted by guilt, consumed by remorse.
This is most apparent is the Oscar favorite, 12 Years a Slave, which taps one of the deepest sources of national guilt — slavery. The film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), suffers the ritual humiliations, but these are dramatically heightened by the fact that he was a free man who has been enslaved and tortured, and that even by traditional American standards he is vastly superior to his tormentors. If he starts the film as a figure of dignity and resistance, he becomes a symbol of national shame as well.
It may be no accident in these times of vituperation and anger that the film most likely to take home the Oscar is the film that most reminds us of our cruelty and most directly addresses our atrophied conscience.
Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as the resourceful commander of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates, deals more obliquely with a similar issue, this time internationally. On its face, it is a gritty docu-thriller. But its subtext touches on the motives of the Somalis who wind up kidnapping Phillips. When Phillips questions the leader as to why he has taken him hostage, the man answers that he doesn’t live in America — meaning he doesn’t have options.