This week, in the run-up to Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, we've been taking a look at each of the Best Picture nominees, the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer. In today's final installment, we turn our attention to Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
READ Oscar Spirit, Pt. 1: Amour, Argo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, HERE.
READ Oscar Spirit, Pt. 2: Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Life of Pi, HERE.
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
Directed by Steven Spielberg; featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and David Strathairn
Producers: Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy
With the Civil War coming to a close and the freedom granted to the slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation called into question, Abraham Lincoln seeks to pass a 13th amendment to the Constitution that will outlaw slavery everywhere in the United States. Facing opposition from many quarters in Congress, Lincoln uses his vast political powers to gain allies in his fight.
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln reminds me of a quote from a different American cinematic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski: "Sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cuz, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man — and I'm talkin' about the Dude here — sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there."
If ever there were a Dude, a man destined (divinely designed and designated) for his place and time, it was Abraham Lincoln, who, in Spielberg's retelling of the last months of the 16th president's life, echoes Lebowski when he says, "Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?"
The answer to Lincoln's question is theological, involving the nature of God and God's providence, something Lincoln referred to often throughout his presidency (see his Second Inaugural Address), and as Spielberg's commander in chief (superbly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis who, unless the Apocalypse arrives Saturday, surely will accept his third Oscar on Sunday).
The macro-level story Lincoln tells is a familiar one — we know how the story ends, historically speaking — but nonetheless compelling. Its strength lies in Spielberg's ability to make the character of Lincoln himself more human, breathing new life into President Lincoln's revered, larger-than-life image immortalized in a stone memorial in our nation's capital.
Abraham Lincoln was a real man, with real hopes, fears, foibles, and heartaches. In the film, Day-Lewis portrays him as a humble, slightly stooped devoted father and husband with a difficult marriage and a high-strung wife whom he honors with his loyalty. One of the most indelible images of Lincoln from the film is in a scene early on when, late one night, he creeps (wearing well-worn slippers) into a parlor in the White House to find his young son asleep on the floor while looking at daguerreotypes of slaves. The president folds his long, lanky body onto the floor beside young Tad (Gulliver McGrath). The boy awakens and climbs onto his father's back, and father Abraham gently raises to his feet and carries him out of the room.
It's a tender moment, intimate and telling. Lincoln is a regular guy — just a dude, if you will — who bears the weight of his personal narrative and that of history with equal grace.
Rather than telling Lincoln's biography in its entirety, Lincoln focuses on the last few months of his life and his diehard efforts to see the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery for all time in the United States, passed by Congress and adopted in December 1865, four months before his assassination.
The film chronicles the political maneuvering by both the amendment's supporters and opposition, each claiming a divine imprimatur for their cause. With the hindsight of history being what it is, some of the debates on the floor of the House are both entertaining and cringeworthy (the content, not the acting, which is unilaterally marvelous).
According to the film (which, depending on who's talking, was more or less historically accurate), Lincoln and his cronies indulged in a few half-truths and a lot of behind-the-scenes political weight throwing, in order to see the amendment come to fruition. Among other things, this fact gives Lincoln's character more nuance. He is mild-mannered, humble, and kind, but he is also aware of who he is and what's at stake, and rises to the full height of his gravitas when needed.
"I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!" he shouts in a particularly tense scene. “You will procure me those votes!"
Like Django and Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln presents us with a moral/ethical quandary: Do the ends justify the means? In Lincoln's case, I don't think many of us would say no.
President Lincoln had the gift of a long vision. He was aware of and interested in his legacy, but not for the sake of ego or politics.
"This settles the fate for all coming time," he says of the 13th amendment. "Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?"
Nearly 150 years later, much of that bleeding has been staunched, but our nation is not yet free of the sanguine wounds of racism and the legacy of slavery. Lincoln was one of three of the nine films nominated for Best Picture that I watched with my 13-year-old son, who is an African American. We saw the film a week after President Obama's second inauguration (on Martin Luther King Day), and as the credits rolled, I looked over at the child seated next to me, tears of gratitude welling in my eyes.
Had Lincoln's faithful (and faith-filled) efforts to end slavery forever through the 13th amendment not been successful, our story — personal and collective — would have been vastly different.
Sometimes there's a man ...
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
Directed by David O. Russell; featuring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon
Pat Solatano is released into his parents' care after eight months of treatment for a bipolar disorder. His recovery seems far from certain, however, when he stops taking his medication and becomes increasingly obsessed with winning back his estranged wife, a plan that leads him to embark on a complicated relationship with a troubled young woman whose husband has died.
There is a passage in Exodus 34 that I always find troubling — the one about "the sins of the father" being passed on to his children:
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation. forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
It seems so unfair, even cruel. Later on in scripture, there are more passages that seem to undo the "sins of the father" curse, which is comforting. But there is a truth in those verses in Exodus that is haunting, a truth that lends poignancy to David O. Russell's winsome Silver Linings Playbook.
This character-driven film centers around the sympathetic (if sometimes maddening) protagonist Pat Soltano (the eminently watchable Bradley Cooper, who rightly is an Oscar nominee for his most formidable performance to date), who we meet when his mother (fellow Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver) picks him up from the mental institution where he has spent the last four years being treated for various disorders, including manic depression.
A one-time substitute teacher at the local high school, Pat had a breakdown when he discovered his wife en flagrante with a fellow teacher and proceeded to nearly beat the man to death. His stay at the institution was court ordered. So is the restraining order Pat's wife has against him.
Pat swears to his mother, who discharges him against doctors' wishes, that he is better. He has a new outlook on life. "EXCELSIOR!" he proclaims, invoking the Latin phrase meaning "ever higher," as he explains that he is committed to looking for the "silver linings" in life. Mom doesn't seem so sure (and neither are we) as Pat sets about plotting ways to win back his wife.
When we meet Pat Sr. (Best Supporting Actor nominee Robert De Niro), we begin to see where Pat Jr. may have inherited some of his foibles (if not sins.) The elder Pat is a sweet man who obviously adores his family. He is also a bookmaker with a flash temper — he's been banned for life from the stadium where his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play because he got into one too many fights in the stands — and a host of behaviors that might be attributed to obsessive-compulsive disorder. They’re kind of endearing, but maybe notsomuch if you have to live with them.
Thankfully (as 1 Peter 4:8 says), love does cover a multitude of sins.
Despite the best of intentions (and an arsenal of coping skills, courtesy of his ever-patient therapist), Pat Jr. is barely keeping it together. His parents, with whom he is living, are on tenterhooks. So are his friends. But then he meets Tiffany (played by the startlingly great Jennifer Lawrence in a performance that likely will win her an Oscar this weekend), a fellow traveller on the road to wellness.
Tiffany lives a few blocks away from the Soltanos in a coach house behind her own parents' home. She moved in with her folks after he husband, a cop, was killed (a tragedy, we learn later, for which she blames herself.) The young widow has mental health issues of her own, but she's soulful and honest. Brutally so, at times.
"There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself," Tiffany tells Pat Jr. during one of their many arguments. "I can forgive. Can you say the same for yourself ... can you forgive? Are you capable of that?"
It takes Pat a long time to forgive himself (and others) but eventually he gets there, in large part by reaching out of his own pain and brokenness to extend grace to someone else: in this case, Tiffany, whom he agrees to help achieve a dream by entering a ballroom dance competition as her partner.
At first Pat agrees to learn to dance solely because Tiffany has promised to deliver a letter to his ex-wife on his behalf. That's the carrot. And it works. Tiffany even produces a letter, supposedly written by the ex to Pat, saying that she needs a "sign" that he's truly changed. Of course, Tiffany suggests that seeing him dance in the competition would offer vivid proof.
But after spending many long hours rehearsing with Tiffany, Pat's motivation begins to shift, and so does his behavior. Even when he figures out that Tiffany has never given his ex-wife a letter and, in fact, wrote the reply letter herself, he still goes through with the contest, giving it his all and, when her confidence flags at the last moment, picking Tiffany up and getting her onto the dance floor.
This is one film where the Hollywood ending was deeply satisfying.
And there are spiritual lessons to be learned in Silver Linings Playbook, important ones. When we reach out of our own pain, when we move beyond ourselves to sacrifice something for someone else or offer them grace and mercy, we are changed.
That's when healing arrives, for ourselves and others. The sins of the father may be handed down to sons and daughters, but sins are forgiven.
Love wins even when we don't.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; featuring Jessica Chastain and Kyle Chandler
Producers: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison
In the aftermath of 9/11, as the trail in the hunt for Osama bin Laden seems to grow cold, a determined CIA agent begins a painstaking, decade-long search for the Al Qaeda leader. For Maya, direct experience of terrorism steels her resolve to find bin Laden and leads her to trust her own instincts regarding the best course of investigation to pursue.
In a recent interview with TIME Magazine, Zero Dark Thirty's director Kathryn Bigelow (who won the 2010 directing Oscar for The Hurt Locker) described her latest controversial film this way: "I think that it's a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden."
The jury is still deliberating whether the actions depicted in Zero Dark Thirty were, in fact, moral. But the film, originally titled For God and Country, certainly pivots around morality, ethics, and faith, though not of a particularly religious kind. Religion does play a role in the film, as it did to a certain extent (thoroughly wrongheaded as it was) in the historical events the preceded the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special forces on in May 2012.
The faith the film highlights belongs to its heroine, Maya (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain in another masterful performance), who is the driving force, we are told, behind bin Laden's demise. She believes that she will catch him. She has faith that she will find the information and assemble the clues that will lead U.S. forces to him and she perseveres in her faith for nearly a decade, even when many others lose faith in her.
Much has been made in the film's graphic scenes of torture used to extract information from sources (believed to be terrorists and their associates). Some critics have said the film glorifies and, in effect, tries to justify the use of torture. But that's not what I came away with after watching the film. The torture scenes are excruciating to witness. Even Maya herself appears to abhor the acts she is asked to watch and participate in, even as a bystander. Whether the information that led to bin Laden's death was acquired by means of torture is a matter of debate.
To dismiss this film because of its depiction of waterboarding and other inhumane treatment of prisoners is, to my mind at least, shortsighted. It's difficult for me to imagine anyone seeing Zero Dark Thirty could emerge with a black-and-white impression of morality of how (and even that) our government pursues and succeeds in pursuing the death of our enemies — even the most wanted (and hated) man in the world.
The most compelling and enduring (if more subtle) facet of the film is the aforementioned leitmotif of faith. We see that the faith, beliefs, and unwavering commitment of one person can make a huge difference in the world.
In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty juxtaposes Maya and bin Laden himself. Her singular faith made the world better (or at least safer, as some would claim), just as bin Laden's singular, fanatical faith wrought so much terror.
As an aside, it was gratifying to see the bravery, determination, and expertise of a woman explored in film, particularly in a role that is traditionally thought of and depicted by men. Maya is heroic, even if you don't agree with her mission.
Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, BELIEBER: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber, and the forthcoming Disquiet Time: A Devotional for Ordinary Skeptics. Read more from Cathleen at www.godgrrl.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.
Photo credit: Stills from Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty via Oscar.com; Photo collage by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
Film synopses via Oscar.com.