The Oscars: Reflections of America
When the Oscar presenters rip open the envelope for best picture at the Academy Awards next month they will be offering a rare glimpse into the soul of America.
Movies have held a special place in American cultural life since they first flickered on sheets stretched across theater stages. And the pictures and people chosen to receive the Oscars have come to represent an artistic aristocracy to revere and admire.Among the movies Academy members are considering are three that offer distinctly different views of how Americans see themselves and their place in the world.
Ben Affleck’s Argo is about a group of American diplomats in Iran who slipped out the back of the embassy in Tehran the day Islamic fundamentalists rushed in the front. They took refuge in the plucky Canadian ambassador’s residence and, by posing as Canadian filmmakers looking for locations for a nonexistent Hollywood movie, obtained papers that allowed them to fly to freedom.
The movie is a traditional piece of Hollywood hokum. In real life the escape lacked the movie’s contrived tense, near-capture moments and the final scene, where Khomeini’s goons race down the runway to prevent the plane carrying our anxious envoys from taking off, never happened.
But what the heck. It is a ripping good yarn laced with humor in which the truth was bent a little to keep us on the edges of our seats.
If the Academy picks Argo, or if this is the picture you would choose if you had a vote, you probably think that all is right with the world. America remains the home of democracy and decency, its people are courageous and ingenious. Whatever trouble we may currently be in, we have the strength of character and material resources to ensure everything turns out right in the end.
This is the Frank Capra view of movies ‑ and history ‑ where the audience leaves the theater with smiles on their faces. This is the movie for the older picture-goer who moans that they don’t make them like that anymore. Well, they do, and Affleck has become the hero of old-fashioned moviemaking and simple, traditional American values.
As they say in The Wizard of Oz, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a horse of a different color. In a difficult movie with an at-times-forbidding screenplay by Tony Kushner, Spielberg, the maker of E.T. and Jurassic Park, takes a close look at a short period in Honest Abe’s presidency when he has just been re-elected and, against a tight deadline, has to persuade a tricky Congress to turn his 1863 proclamation freeing the slaves into law.
A solid, satisfying piece of history, inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s admirable Team of Rivals and topped by great performances, not least the towering portrayal of Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis, the movie has contemporary echoes of Obama’s re-election and the fiscal cliff/debt ceiling negotiations. We are lucky to have filmmakers – and audiences – of such maturity to sustain such a complex account of a pivotal episode in our nation’s story.
If Lincoln wins best picture, there will be general rejoicing. Here is a work of art that shows America at its best. At the film’s heart is one of our greatest presidents treated with the richness and roughness of texture he deserves. This is the movie for those who admire the nobility of the sentiments that finally made Jefferson’s revolutionary phrase “all men are created equal” a reality. It marks a depth of understanding about the messiness of our political process and the importance of strong, dignified, eloquent leaders and bold, brave, principled leadership.
Hollywood has tried many times to capture the genius of Abraham Lincoln, but this, surely, is Lincoln for the ages.
Then there is Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s dark, deep dive into the black arts of the government agents who, against the odds, tracked down and then dispatched to the deep the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden.
This is a difficult movie to watch. The first 20 minutes or so provide a graphic account of the brutal waterboarding of suspects by U.S. forces that became commonplace during the occupation of Iraq. It is morally complicated, chillingly matter-of-fact ‑ and totally lacking in the glory and glamour usually associated with such “patriotic” subjects. It comes as a relief that this movie was not made during the gung-ho years of President George W. Bush, but the result is troubling for anyone with a questioning mind.
If this extraordinary movie makes best picture, it will have won despite a barrage of abuse from those who believe it suggests that torture works. It does no such thing. There is no need for a spoiler alert to tell that the movie does not portray waterboarding as the key to the breakthrough that led eventually to bin Laden’s Pakistan hideaway. On the contrary, after a prisoner’s will is broken by a succession of grisly procedures, it is gratuitous acts of kindness, not cruelty, that lead him to spill information.
Be that as it may, this is not a movie for faint hearts or the squeamish. It does, however, in its attempt to be factual and authentic, show the ethical fine line that our forces must walk when they apply foreign policy. It suggests that sometimes shortcuts are taken. In its own way, the movie is courageous in its candor and ambiguity, for few Americans would prefer to believe the uncomfortable message it delivers.
If Zero Dark Thirty wins, it will not be an act of triumphalism or revenge. There is no simple-minded, jingoistic, xenophobic “mission accomplished” moment. A best picture Oscar may upset anti-American foreigners, who might imagine the movie condones and celebrates terrible acts. Rather, a win would signal that we have slowly come to understand the profound difficulties posed when our culture must wage war against slippery, amoral foes.
The movie is not an entertainment, it is an attempt at understanding, an instrument of education, even an act of atonement. Hollywood should be proud that it found a director as gifted and subtle as Bigelow to tackle this most difficult of tasks.
America is slowly emerging from the unexpected horrors of the first decade of the millennium that brought us, in short order, a devastating assault upon our shores by vicious enemies who held our civilized values in contempt followed by an abrupt collapse in our material fortunes that brought us to the brink of penury. We found ourselves fighting two foreign wars simultaneously and reliving our great-grandparents’ financial fears. We have endured a battering that combined elements of the Great Depression, World War II and Vietnam. Light can be glimpsed on the horizon, but few have yet regained the wide-eyed confidence with which we greeted the new century.
So which of the three movies will we pick to mark this emergence from the dark?
It may be a little too early for the frivolity and nostalgia of Argo. But that would certainly be the optimists’ choice ‑ and despite everything, America remains an optimistic nation. It is perhaps still too early to clasp the uncomfortable Zero Dark Thirty to our bosom. The harsh lessons of war take a long while to assimilate. Lincoln offers the best of America and is therefore likely to chime with our current state of mind. It must therefore be the favorite to win best picture. But who knows?
This time, the opening of the envelopes on Oscar night, Feb. 24, will tell us something important about ourselves. For it will take the temperature of an America on the mend.
PHOTO (Top): Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln Credit: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO (Insert Middle): Ben Affleck directed and stars in Argo. Credit: Warner Bros.
Photo (Insert Bottom): Jessica Chastain starts in Zero Dark Thirty” Credit: Sony Pictures