Oscars 2006: Small Movies Tackle Big Controversies
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2006 3 Mar
The 78th Annual Academy Awards race is into its final week. The telecast airs Sunday, March 5 on ABC, and most of the Academy’s 6,000-plus members have sent off their ballots (due by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28).
Predicting which film will take home the most Oscar statuettes is a ritual for many of us, but before we do so, let’s consider this year’s nominees. Is there any message or common theme among the latest Oscar crop – something that represents a cultural moment, or seismic shift?
Of course, the press piranhas already have dissected the major nominees and have concluded … something. Something about homosexuality. Something about racism. Something about courage. The Academy reportedly has accepted the first, repudiated the second and embraced the third. What else is there to say?
Quite a bit on this site, because Crosswalk, for a variety of reasons, has not fully reviewed a few of the major nominees.
So let’s catch up with all five Best Picture contenders – "Brokeback Mountain", "Good Night and Good Luck", "Capote", "Crash", and "Munich." Do these films offer any lessons – good or bad – about cultural trends, the Red/Blue divide in America, or the movie business in general?
Yes. For one thing, despite the rampant talk about the limited combined box-office grosses of the major nominees relative to past years, there is little correlation between box-office performance and artistic quality. The industry looks back fondly upon the years when artistry and box-office success coincided – a recent example is the Best Picture win for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" – but much of that talk is driven by the bottom-line interest of the TV network airing the program. The more popular the nominated films, the theory goes, the more people will tune in for the Oscar telecast – a major event, for which advertisers pay top dollar. When a lesser-known film has the inside track to victory, the TV suits start to get nervous, fearing that no one will bother to watch the telecast.
But Oscars, at their best, aren’t about the bottom-line interests of network TV. They’re designed to highlight the best the motion-picture industry has to offer. Although the Academy often falls short by failing to nominate the best films of the year, it also offers a major boost to good films that might be overlooked absent the Oscar attention.
The year 2005 is an excellent case in point. None of the films released in this timeframe can be easily dismissed and some are exceptional. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics of the filmmakers or even with the politics of the films themselves (a much murkier thing to discern), the subject matter of each of these films has had, and will continue to have, a strong impact on our cultural conversation.
A brief overview of the five films follows, beginning with the general perception of each film, based not on scientific research, but on anecdotal evidence: personal conversations, media reports, and online conversations with other Christian film critics.
Lastly, I name “the ones that got away” – a few films that were unjustly overlooked in major Oscar categories.
Still the front-runner for Best Picture honors, this story of two male sheepherders who fall in love with each other defied the odds by breaking out of the art-house circuit and finding paying customers across the country. It’s already a landmark film, and will remain so, even if it loses out on Oscar night.
Director Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility", "Eat Drink Man Woman") brings a delicate touch to this story of heartbreak and betrayal. When Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) spend a summer tending sheep atop "Brokeback Mountain," their friendship takes a sudden turn, and the two enter into a sexual relationship that will endure over the years, even as both men, while separated from each other, pursue marriage and family life.
The two men are protective of their secret, fearing that, if word got out about their love for one another, they may suffer violent repercussions. But Ennis’ reluctance to build a life with Jack leads to bitterness on Jack’s part, who seeks anonymous sexual gratification with other men.
The film’s tragic dimension is supposed to lie in the inability, due to societal prejudice and the increasing responsibilities of work and family, of Ennis to commit exclusively to Jack. But the sinfulness of homosexuality is not as painful as the betrayal of each man’s marital vows to their respective spouses, one of whom lives for years with the knowledge of her husband’s willful betrayal. The film is deeply painful, and no attempt to explain away the flagrant sins of its main characters can make the film more palatable.
While beautifully crafted and presented with Lee’s artful touch, the film is, at its core, a hedonistic story of two people who cheat their families to gratify their base desires. That’s nothing to celebrate when heterosexuals are involved, and it’s certainly no different with "Brokeback Mountain."
A dark-horse candidate for Best Picture," Crash," from director Paul Haggis (screenwriter for "Million Dollar Baby" ), shows the animosities among different ethnic groups in Los Angeles. The multi-character drama about the intersection of vastly different lives and attitudes struck a chord with audiences over the summer and continued to build momentum through the Oscar campaign season. Prominent Oscar prognosticators have suggested that, if any of the Best Picture nominees can upset supposed front-runner "Brokeback Mountain," it will be "Crash."
Why the affection? Maybe because "Crash" fails to wallow in the ugliness of the racism it presumes to dissect, offering a hopeful coda for a few, if not all of, its characters.
A traffic accident in Los Angeles involving a black police detective (Don Cheadle) and his part-Puerto-Rican, part-El-Salvadoran girlfriend sets the story in motion. The film shows that this interracial relationship is burdened by the suspicion and lingering racial prejudice between the two, but prejudice is by no means confined to these characters. Other "Crash" characters include a racist cop (Matt Dillon) and the two people he harasses – a successful black television director and his wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) – as well as his offended partner (Ryan Phillippe); a district attorney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), who are carjacked by two black thugs (Ludacris and Larenz Tate); a Persian shopkeeper who wants to buy a gun to protect himself against the vandals who have broken into his store; and a Mexican locksmith whose clients (the shopkeeper and the carjacked woman) distrust him.
The message of "Crash" seems to be that some racists can be redeemed, while some upstanding people secretly harbor racist instincts that can be deadly, given the right confluence of events. The film’s blunt racism is matched only by its profanity-laden dialogue, but "Crash" also includes a few powerful scenes and a recognition within some of the characters of their own failings. Rarely, however, has character redemption seemed like such scant payoff for a feature film.
GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK
Come with me now, back to a time before the CBS News scandal about George W. Bush’s military documents, to the days before Dan Rather stormed off the CBS Evening News set when a tennis match ran two minutes overtime – back to a time when CBS News journalists were heroes.
George Clooney directs and stars in "Good Night and Good Luck," an impressive, timely film about the nature and purpose of journalism, and its privileged role in questioning those in power. In this case, Edward R. Murrow’s aggressive questioning of Sen. Joe McCarthy, who was on a crusade to root out Communists and Communist sympathizers within the United States.
The film opens with a sober text scroll, informing us that “few in the press were willing to stand up against McCarthy, for fear that they too would be targeted.” The story that unfolds bears this out, as Murrow (David Strathairn), along with his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney), use their "See It Now" broadcast to question why an Air Force lieutenant has been publicly humiliated and labeled as a security threat, based on documents that the military refuses to divulge. Murrow uses additional broadcast time to go after McCarthy, who eventually appears on Murrow’s program to respond to Murrow’s allegations.
With its references to sealed documents, national security threats and “terrorist organizations,” "Good Night and Good Luck" is designed to remind viewers that journalists face problems in getting the whole truth today, in the midst of our war against Islamic extremism, as they did during Murrow’s time. It’s a provocative film, beautifully shot in black and white, with strong ensemble acting. But its efforts to appear timely are hindered by lines such as this one, spoken by Murrow: “A network is defined by its news.”
That may have been the case as recently as 10 years ago, but network news viewership has since eroded, and the string of embarrassments – particularly at CBS News, to which "Good Night and Good Luck" pays tribute – are a painful reminder that neither side of the political spectrum finds journalism to be the heroic profession it once was. The Right looks to blogs to break major news stories, while the Left sees a lapdog press corps all too willing to carry the administration’s water. And so, for all of its relevant elements, "Good Night and Good Luck" presents an ideal that we rarely see in today’s media world. It’s a strong film that looks back, rather than a prophetic picture that points the way forward.
An unusual film about a highly unusual man, "Capote" tells the story behind "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote’s account of the murder of several family members in Kansas. The book launched a new genre – the “nonfiction novel” – and catapulted Capote to great fame. "Capote" recounts the agonizingly long start-to-finish process of writing the book and the heavy toll it took on its author.
When Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a staff writer for the New Yorker, reads about the murders and the pending trial for two suspects, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, he heads to Kansas in search of another magazine story. Traveling with him is friend and fellow writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who would soon achieve fame of her own as author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
After talking with one of the suspects, Capote calls his editor and informs him that he has enough juicy material for a book. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any certainty that the men accused of the crime are indeed guilty, but he’s confident that, through his time spent interviewing Perry, he can win Perry’s confidence and eventual confession.
Instead, he finds himself drawn to Perry, calling into question his journalistic objectivity, and motives. Is he interested in exonerating Perry and Dick, or in hastening the judicial process, so he can complete his book?
Capote’s homosexuality is portrayed through his ongoing relationship with a male partner, but the film is less interested in the morality of Capote’s sexual preference than it is in his slow downward spiral in the face of pressures from his publisher and his methods for extracting information from Perry.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is winning raves for his portrayal of Capote, and I can only add my own praise for Hoffman and the other principal actors in "Capote." The film is impeccably well made, but it’s full of close-ups and interior shots – almost suffocating to watch. As unique and compelling as Capote is at times, its central character remains an enigma – a tragic, rather unlikable individual, who would never again match the acclaim that greeted "In Cold Blood."
The finest of the five Best Picture nominees, "Munich," a striking look at the effects of terrorism and counterterrorism, was quickly dismissed by many critics, not to mention political commentators, who saw it as a liberal’s apology for the “sins” of Israel against the Palestinian people. How sad, because "Munich" is more about the effects of killing on the human soul than it is about who’s right and wrong in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent, accepts a request to lead a team of assassins in tracking down and killing the men responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes by the PLO during the 1972 Olympics. As they carry out their mission (filmed with an appropriate sense of dread, mixed with adrenaline), Avner – a husband and new father – begins to question the motives of his boss (played by Geoffrey Rush). His infrequent phone calls home reveal his isolation and struggles, as he clings to memories of his marriage. A much commented upon reunion scene late in the film mixes images of marital intimacy with Avner’s tormented images of death, but more disturbing is the final exchange between Avner and Rush, which reveals a great gulf between the two men.
If approached as a human spiritual drama, the film is one of the most rewarding in recent memory. Of the many reviews I’ve read for "Munich," no one has better grasped the spiritual heart of this film than has Armond White in the New York Press. He writes: “Today’s movie culture has so thoroughly written off the concept of sin that any movie ridiculing it … is guaranteed to be widely praised. This fondness for transgression might explain the trouble Spielberg has run into with 'Munich.' He explicates a grievous sense of wrong-doing that communicates best to those who are open to an Ecumenical view of life (or if that term scares you, Judeo-Christian). 'Munich'’s vision is truly Judeo-Christian in that it doesn’t confuse morality with politics. It uses one to test the other.”
The Ones That Got Away ...
Three other noteworthy films were overlooked in the Best Picture category. "Walk the Line," about singer Johnny Cash, was widely expected to earn a nomination, but instead had to settle for acting nominations for Joaquin Phoenix, who played Cash, and Reese Witherspoon, who played June Carter Cash in the film. The biopic was a crowd pleaser, with some tremendous acting, but its central story of two married people who fall in love with each other didn’t show audiences anything they hadn’t seen before. The failure to depict Cash’s Christian faith was another drawback, leaving the impression that Cash’s importance as an artist and individual was largely confined to his days as a rebel against God.
More intriguing were two films that challenged audiences on the subject of violence, and the sanctity of human life. David Cronenberg’s "A History of Violence" earned only one nomination in the major Oscar categories – for William Hurt’s oddball performance as a gangster – but the film deserved better. A troubling examination of what lies behind our violent acts, "A History of Violence" contains two excellent leading performances from Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello as a husband and wife struggling to cope with a haunted past that leads to physical threats and bloody acts of self-defense. The film’s two sex scenes between these characters show how a betrayal of trust affects their marriage at its most intimate level. Violence also speaks to fears about past sins, but leaves viewers with the possibility of grace and acceptance from those whose trust has been most violated.
Less challenging, but more uplifting, is "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." Tommy Lee Jones, who directed the film, stars as Texas ranch hand Pete Perkins, a friend of Estrada’s who carries out his wish, prior to his death, to have Estrada’s body returned home to Mexico for burial. Perkins forces Estrada’s killer to accompany him on the journey. The film includes much dark humor involving Estrada’s corpse, but Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga don’t settle for a few morbid chuckles. Rather, they turn the journey into a religious quest to fulfill a promise, and redeem a lost soul. The final few moments hint at one character’s renewal and rebirth – a worthy end to the dark night of the soul that precedes it.
Jones’ and Cronenberg’s films, along with Spielberg’s "Munich," make for a triumvirate of excellent films examining violence from a moral perspective. Regardless of which of the nominated films wins Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, these three films were the most important, collectively, of 2005.