Sunday, February 26, 2017
America’s Best Picture? All of Them - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."
By PETER SUDERMAN FEB. 25, 2017, New York Times
image from article
For years, the Academy Awards reliably recognized movies that attempted to capture
the sweep of the American idea — in earnest films like “Forrest Gump” and “Saving
Private Ryan” as well as more scorching efforts like “There Will Be Blood” — that
seemed to want to define the country, and its people, all at once.
If you wanted a shot at a best-picture Oscar in that era, an ambitious statement
film that tried to tell Americans who they really are was a good bet.
But in this decade, the Oscars have turned inward, eschewing ambitious epics
and grand statements about the national character in favor of anxious self-reflection,
bestowing the Academy’s highest honors on films like “The Artist” and “Argo” that
flattered Hollywood’s self-image. True, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a
handful of movies tried to channel the country’s mood (“The Wolf of Wall Street”
and “American Hustle”) or critique its historic self-conception (“12 Years a Slave”).
But by and large, Hollywood went from examining the national character to
examining its own.
This year’s crop has some of that. A top contender, “La La Land,” a technically
proficient love letter to old Hollywood musicals, is set in Los Angeles, of course.
Yet the nine films nominated for the Academy’s highest honor manage to present a
vision not of the American identity, but of the variety of American identities — a
collage of very different American lives that, taken together, provide as strong a
sense of the American idea as any single movie ever has.
Start with “Fences,” which, along with “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,”
explores the black experience in America.
Denzel Washington’s stirring adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 play about a
working-class black family in Pittsburgh during the 1950s probably has the most to
say about the American character. Working from some of the same elements as
“Death of a Salesman,” it is blunt about the role of racial discrimination in postwar
America. Yet it is also a small-scale affair about the struggles of family life set mostly
in a tiny back yard.
“Hidden Figures,” a true story about the contributions of black women to the
space program during the 1960s, plays like a perspective-flipped version of “The
Right Stuff.” Both “Figures” and “Fences” are steeped in a kind of counter-nostalgia
that reexamines postwar America in a more critical light.
No Oscar nominee this year is more intensely focused on the nuances and
complexities of individual identity than “Moonlight.” The most likely challenger to
“La La Land,” it follows its gay, black protagonist — first as a child, then as a
teenager and finally as a hardened young adult — as he struggles with self-actualization
and self-acceptance. As Juan (Mahershala Ali), the drug dealer who
helps raise him, says early in the film: “At some point, you got to decide for yourself
who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
The line is the key to this year’s entire slate of best-picture nominees, which are
built on depictions of specific people and places with cultures and cadences, and
accents and aesthetics, that define the characters as separate from the rest of the
country. [JB emphasis]
Another set of films examine class and culture in white America.
“La La Land” is both a throwback musical fueled by cinematic self-reference and
a portrait of two urban, coastal strivers who pour themselves into their ideas and
ambitions, in part because they cling to a belief in the promise of a creatively and
economically fulfilling life.
That makes for a striking contrast with “Hell or High Water,” a taut neo-Western
thriller set against the economic struggles of small-town Texas, where debt
is rampant and the population is dwindling. The movie follows two brothers who, in
an act of economic revenge, have decided to rob the bank that’s about to foreclose on
their family home. It’s a bleak, rural counterpoint to the colorful urban fantasia of
“La La Land”; one tells the story of working-class men with nothing to lose, the other
the story of creative professionals with everything to gain.
Mel Gibson’s bloody, brutal World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge” also nods to
classic Hollywood, with a romantic, earnest first hour. The film tells the true story of
the religiously motivated conscientious objector Desmond Doss’s battlefield
heroism, and it stands out in this year’s field for its unironic portrayal of individual
All these films embrace cultural memory of a decidedly different flavor than
what’s on display in “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.”
In “La La Land,” Ryan Gosling plays Seb, a jazz fanatic obsessed with the
genre’s decline. He takes Mia (Emma Stone) to a jazz club, where he insists: “That’s
why you need to be in the space and see what’s at stake. This whole thing — it’s
dying.” For Seb, jazz isn’t just a kind of music. It’s a way of life, enacted in a
particular place, but it’s struggling to survive — much like the dusty Texas towns of
“Hell or High Water.”
The writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is another
film defined by both a deep sense of place and a painful attachment to the past. Mr.
Lonergan’s portrait of mumbling, emotionally detached Northeastern working-class
whites forced to deal with unbearable loss is a story about a distinctly individual
trauma, but also about how a community’s particular traits and habits can alter the
way that loss is felt.
Each of these movies, in other words, is about the struggle for individual and
cultural self-definition — and the challenge of allowing for all those competing self-definitions
to flourish and coexist within some larger American community. They
are portraits of a nation fragmented by race, class, culture and geography.
Even the two I have yet to mention — “Lion” and “Arrival” — exist on the same
continuum. “Lion,” the only best-picture nominee to be set entirely outside the
United States, is the true tale of an international adoptee’s search for his Indian
birthplace that deals with belonging and the pull of two very different cultures.
“Arrival” is a literary science-fiction story about translating an alien language,
and in the process learning a new thought paradigm that staves off global war. It’s a
movie about learning to find peace in a dangerous world with others who don’t speak
or think like you.
Which is something like the challenge that America now faces. Perhaps more
than anything else, last year’s presidential race was fought over internal questions of
national identity as well as uneasiness about America’s place in the world. The
election did not resolve those questions so much as highlight the strength of
The narrow, personal focus of this year’s top Oscar nominees suggests how
tough it may be for Americans, or Hollywood, to settle on a single unifying vision of
what America means, or what it means to be an American. It may never again be
possible for one movie to fully answer those questions. More likely, it never was.
Yet this year’s best-picture crop may have provided an answer — in the notion
that there is no one American story, but a variety of specific and unique American
stories, and in the idea that America is a nation of both individualism and pluralism.
You might think of the movies in the best-picture category as a kind of expanded
cinematic universe — not of superheroes, but of ordinary, extraordinary lives,
overlapping and intersecting in a sprawling national epic too big for any one film.
Of course, that means the task is more difficult for moviegoers as well: If you
really want to find out what America looks like, you have to watch all of them.
Peter Suderman is the features editor at Reason Magazine and a pop culture columnist