The Politics of the Academy Award Best Picture Nominees


Best Picture

I’m not talking about the efforts that the studios make to ensure that Leonardo DiCaprio wins the Best Actor award or someone you’ve never heard of wins for Best Costume Design.

I’m talking about the ways in which narrative film (and all narratives for that matter) offer in ways subtle or overt a thesis about the way that the world works or should work. It doesn’t take too much digging to determine what a narrative is saying about the nature of human nature or the nature of human relationships.

It’s in this spirit of uncovering the world views of narratives that I offer the following idea relevant to an election year: Two of the nominees are clearly Republican movies and two are Democratic movies. I’m elaborating on an idea offered in a January 10th Salon essay by Marie Myung-Ok Lee. In expressing her belief that Spotlight is a superior movie to The Revenant, she suggests that The Revenant is Donald Trump, sadism covering a follow core, and Spotlight is Bernie Sanders, skeptical reason at the service of public good.

A bit of background. A number of social scientists (Chris Mooney in The Republican Brain, Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics, and George Lakoff in Moral Politics) have argued that those on the left and right of the political spectrum not only disagree about matters like taxation and foreign interventionism but have fundamentally different world pictures or frames of mind that determine to a large degree their thinking on policy matters.

Thus, Republicans (the Daddy party according to Lakoff) value more highly than do Democrats authority, group solidarity, and purity. Democrats (the Mommy Party) place more value on empathy/compassion, novelty/experimentation, and self-expression than do their Republican brethren.

And Republicans and Democrats have different narratives about the national experience. In the Republican version, we have drifted away from the values that made the country great: low levels of government interference in capitalistic growth, religious commitment that strengthened public morality, and multiple successes in vanquishing foreign threats. These qualities regretfully have been eroded by accommodation to special interest groups, misguided diversity, and America-hating academics.

In the Democratic narrative, our history has been a long and often painful struggle to extend freedom and opportunity to historically marginalized groups at home and a somewhat sorry record of late of trying to impose democratic models on foreign countries (when not propping up dictators who are seen as friends or the lesser of a number of evils). The Democrat version is an endorsement of King’s belief that the arc of history bends toward justice. This vision requires constant vigilance against those social forces (corporations, the church, reactionaries) that would roll back civil rights and violate Constitutional principles.

The epic The Revenant, set in the 19th century, is celebration of the western hero mythology that is deviously morphed in political statements of Republican candidates who chastise the takers and dream of carpet bombing our latest enemy in the Middle East. The world of fur trapper Hugh Glass is indeed  Darwinian, a cruel and dangerous one, and behind every tree is a silent, steely-eyed Indian or a companion bent on betrayal. The harsh natural world also contains enemies, most dramatically in the form of a bear who mauls Glass almost to the point of death. [It’s tempting to provide an allegorical reading in which the bear, who Glass initially subdues only to come roaring back, represents the rejuvenated Putin and the Russian nation.] Unlike many pioneers, Glass is not sustained by a vision of domesticating the West under the sanction of Manifest Destiny; rather he’s driven by the desire to avenge the death of his Pawnee wife and other harms done to him. Speaking of the wife and his mixed race son, they’re bit players in the drama of the white man facing with pluck and guts an overwhelming number of obstacles. A decent, self-sufficient man who just wants to make a life trapping furs is overwhelmed by circumstances not of his own making. Physical survival is paramount and he proves the fittest of all.

MadMax: Fury Road, which garnered just as many nominations as The Revenant, might also be described as a Republican movie. Though I think because of its sense of humor and its intention to avoid profundity, it is a better movie than The Revenant. The Revenant looks at us with a solemn stare; the playful Mad Max looks at us with a knowing wink. The Revenant stays safely inside the formula of a particular kind of Western; MadMax both respects and subverts the action picture. Furthermore, it’s got a female heroine (Charlize Theron) who, even with an amputated limb, could probably outsmart and outfight Leonardo DiCaprio. And it’s got villains far more sinister than Glass’s frenemy Fitzgerald. It’s a pure movie and arguably more cinematic — and inventive –than the highly cinematic The Revenant. It’s breathless in its pace, and quite a contrast to the often tedious and ultimately boring story of Hugh Glass.

I say that it’s a Republican movie because in its wonderful visual evocation a post-apocalyptic time, it suggests a Republican vision of what life on the planet might be like if Korea does indeed use rather than just talk about a hydrogen bomb, or if duplicitous Iran hands a warhead to one of its proxies like Hezbollah, or if disastrous Obamacare is not repealed, or if Kim Davis has to hand out marriage licenses to gay couples. The Republican candidates offer us various versions of a dystopian future if a radical socialist gets to the White House. We’ll all be roaming around in the desert if the Dems recapture the House. Because director George Miller is not interested in explaining what went wrong in the past, it might be just as easy to explain the movie as a lesson in what happens when we deny global warming, fail to act to save the planet, and are reduced to fighting over precious water resources. This is the Democrats dark cloud on the planet’s horizon.

The compelling detective story which is Spotlight is a Democratic story. In its account of the investigative reporting team that uncovered patterns of child abuse among Catholic clergymen and cover ups that extent to the highest levels of the Church hierarchy, the movie gives us a portrait of a collaborative effort to identify and curtail injustice and corruption. The film treads softly on the make-up of this investigative team but it is worth noting that it has a multi-cultural stamp: an editor of the paper who is Jew and team members who include a lapsed-Catholic female, a tough Portuguese guy from Boston’s East End, and the team leader, an Irish-Catholic guy-from-the-neighborhood. Though initially unconvinced that there is a case to be made and then stonewalled by the various protectors of the abusers found in Catholic faithful, the bishop’s residence, and the legal community, they persist in their efforts and inspire similar investigations around the world. The world is not so much dangerous as it is deeply flawed, but in the journalist’s efforts to speak truth to power, the world can be temporarily set right. The privilege and self-interest that are lodged in institutional authority need constant exposure if victim trauma is to be avoided and social welfare is to flourish.

The Big Short might also be described as a Democratic movie. The various rogue investors, the central characters of the film, discern and then exploit the inevitable housing bubble and the financial houses of cards that are built around rotten mortgage-based securities. The movie follows the intertwined stories of four analyst-investor groups who work independently to take advantage of the truth behind the conventional wisdom of a healthy economy and the chicanery that sustains this wisdom. Three of these agents are rogue outsiders – in fact, two guys operate a hedge fund not in the belly of the Wall Street beast but out of their garage – and they are motivated not only by the desire to score big but also to show that they have a better handle on things than does Federal Reserve chairperson Alan Greenspan or Jaime Diamond, chair of JP Morgan.  Speak Truth to Power and Cash In.

Unlike the scandal spotlighted by the Boston journalists, this story, as we know, doesn’t have a happy ending. Though the dissidents profited handsomely from betting against the market, some of them are melancholy knowing that the thieves in high places never went to trial while thousands of homeowners and modest investors were wiped out. Nevertheless, this film offers a rebuttal to Republican economic mythologies. It provides dramatic proof that the invisible hand of the market when unregulated and unsupervised can cause great harm. The bears on Wall Street are more powerful and more entrenched than the bear that mauls Hugh Glass. Democrats would argue that today we don’t need Hugh Glass, a hero of a time long ago. What we need is a reinvigorated Glass-Steagall Act, a 1933 piece of legislation that restricted affiliations between banks and security firms.

Finally, Bridge of Spies, might be read on the matrix of American party politics, especially when we take a look at the differences in approaches taken by the candidates to foreign policy and acts of aggression against American citizens. Can we not see in private citizen and attorney James Donovan’s lengthy efforts to get the release of American pilot Francis Gary Powers who was shot down by the Soviets in 1960 a precursors to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to get the quick release of the American sailors who were captured when they strayed into Iranian territorial waters. At the height of the Cold War, with American and Soviet missiles pointed toward one another and massive armies bivouacked along the German border, back-channel diplomacy worked to get Powers free. In these arguably less perilous times, the movie offers a caution to the blustery and bellicose Republicans: Diplomacy First. Talk to Your Enemies.

Will the winner of the Best Picture Award forecast presidential election results? Wait and see.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

One thought on “The Politics of the Academy Award Best Picture Nominees

  1. February 18, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    as time passes the Oscars 2019 come closer and closer, now only one week has to wait more, i am pretty excited about it. i think the movie ” Vice” or “Favourite” may win this year. and there are also strong chances for “Black Panther” and lets see who will win. and Congratulations! you can get all updates abut Oscars here

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