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Arts and Culture

Oscars 2013: What the Best Picture Nominees Say About America

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Posted on Feb 22, 2013
AP/Warner Bros. Pictures/Claire Folger

From left, John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in “Argo.” The film has been the big winner this awards season so far.

By Carrie Rickey

(Page 2)

“Lincoln”

With its windy, magnificent screenplay by Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is about politics in the concrete: what it took the 16th president to get the ornery House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that abolished slavery.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncanny performance as not-always-honest Abe shows (and tells) us that the noble ideals inscribed on the creamy marble pediments of Washington monuments are fought for in the muddy trenches and smoke-filled rooms made palpable by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography.

In 1858, Lincoln famously gave a speech that insisted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure … half slave and half free.” Kushner employs this image of a divided House of Representatives and a divided White House to build his drama about a president who believes legislation will put the House—and his own house—back together again.

The takeaway is unmistakable: It’s a telegraph from the past to the present, from President Lincoln to President Obama and the current House of Representatives. Oration and bloviation may play to the peanut gallery, but it doesn’t get legislation passed. Mr. President, do what it takes to lead; look what Lincoln did in three months. Congress, follow or get out of the way. Put the national house together again.

“Silver Linings Playbook”

How does this story of a teacher with bipolar disorder, Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a guy whose estranged wife has a restraining order against him, represent America? Glad you asked. Let’s just say director David O. Russell’s movie is likewise about a house divided, this one by a young man whose mania and depression are at odds—like America in an election year.

Consider that said teacher’s dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a compulsive gambler with anger-management issues, is underemployed. To make ends meet, the elder Pat is a bookie. Consider that Pat Sr.‘s religion and obsession is the Church of Football, denomination Philadelphia Eagles. Consider that son’s religion and obsession is his estranged wife. One believes the Eagles will win; the other that his wife will return. For both Solitanos, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.

And then along comes Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a vibrant and volatile young widow with her own unspecified mental issues. Her openness brings both Pats out of emotional lockdown: Pat Sr. bets on his son; Pat Jr. lets go of the past.

The takeaway: As two negatives make a positive, two shaky people make each other steady. Alternatively: Who needs health insurance and a drug plan when love is a natural mood stabilizer?

“Zero Dark Thirty”

Even its detractors can agree that Kathryn Bigelow’s political procedural about the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden has fueled civic debate on the immorality and inhumanity of torture. Still, I disagree with Jane Mayer, one of the film’s most knowledgeable and eloquent critics, that the movie constitutes “false advertising for waterboarding.” That isn’t my takeaway.

The film, written by Mark Boal, opens with audio of the al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and concludes with the Navy SEALs’ attack on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan in 2011, including bin Laden’s assassination. Early on, it contains by my count three excruciating scenes of CIA operatives using what are euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Some viewers claim the movie shows that waterboarding directly led the CIA to the whereabouts of the elusive bin Laden. The film I saw, in which seven years elapse between the dehumanizing scene of waterboarding and bin Laden’s assassination, makes at best an indirect link between torture and Abbottabad.

The movie shows its central figure, CIA intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain), being as single-minded about finding the architect of the attack on the twin towers as Lincoln was about getting the 13th Amendment passed. As the film tells it, Maya has no life outside of work. She prevails through two presidential administrations and CIA reshufflings holding her superiors’ feet to the fire.

In the film’s penultimate sequence, SEALs’ mission accomplished, Maya identifies bin Laden’s body. In the final shots, tears streaking her ashen cheeks, she boards a military transport. What is she thinking? It reminded me of the allusive final scene of “The Graduate” in which each moviegoer projects his or her feelings onto the characters. For me, the takeaway of “Zero Dark Thirty” is “Revenge is bitter.”

In the Oscar-nominated best pictures of 2012 we are less likely to encounter the pursuit of happiness than that of survival and professionalism. The thread running through these films, one that ties Tony Mendez to Hushpuppy to Django to Lincoln to Tiffany to Maya, is that America may not be a land of liberty, but it’s definitely a land of tenacity, and a land where the tenacious create their own community.


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