Oscars and the Big Picture

WE SHOULDN'T really expect the Oscars to grasp the point of history, though this year the films nominated for Best Picture are a fascinating snapshot of what ails—and could heal—us.

Zero Dark Thirty takes a clinical view of the search for Bin Laden and has been criticized for its portrayal of torture as effective. To my mind this debate may miss the wider question: Torture is bad enough, but a central assumption about the efficacy and validity of killing for peace—that shooting an old man in his bedroom would solve anything—is worthy of enhanced interrogation.

The point is missed also in the brouhaha about Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's thrilling satirical Western. People are up in arms about the comic book violence and use of the N-word—but this is perhaps the most powerful, even indelible, portrayal of the violence of slavery ever made for a mainstream audience. Two wrongs don't make a right, and the revenge arc in this film should be questioned, but Tarantino has done a moral service in not sanitizing his fictionalization of historical memory. Lincoln is the perfect companion piece—I highly recommend you see both. Django Unchained uses B-movie tropes to vastly entertain while confronting the real horrors Abraham Lincoln was fighting to end. Lincoln is a theatrical history lesson that delicately handles the moral authority competitions, language games, and political complexity behind the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln's struggle could be seen as one between grace and law, the central theme of Les Misérables, which moves too fast, but does at least move; and even more so in Silver Linings Playbook, a lovely fusion of two elements—serious (and distressing) drama about family brokenness, and just as serious about love (the same theme explored with a very different tone in Amour). My favorite of the nominated films is probably Life of Pi, another genre fusion, with marvelous color and a compelling hero's journey narrative; my least favorite is Argo, which squanders the chance to tell a two-sided story about U.S. involvement in Iran in exchange for a classy but derivative escape-from-the-scary-foreigners flick.

In Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis' gentle-voiced president is at pains to remind the audience that "things equal to the same thing are equal to each other." Lincoln should present the Oscars. I mean, how can one say that Beasts of the Southern Wild (multiply nominated, highly acclaimed, honest about social marginalization with a touch of magic realism) is better than The Perks of Being a Wallflower (not nominated at all, highly acclaimed, honest about social marginalization with a touch of realistic magic)? The Oscars don't really matter. But thankfully some of these films do.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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