Usually one or two biopics are represented in the Oscar contenders, but this year we have a slew of them for some reason. Every film nominated in the Foreign Language Film category is based on a true story. The Chilean film No directed by Pablo Larrain is an historical drama about a man who helped topple the Pinochet regime; Montreal-based director Kim Nguyen's War Witch is based on the actual events of a child soldier in Burma that have been re-envisioned in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Danish director Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair is about the mentally ill 18th century Danish King Christian VII and the affair between his queen and the royal physician; and likewise, the Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki is an historical drama about the ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 expedition undertaken in an attempt to prove his theory that people from South America settled in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Even the French director Michael Haneke's Amour is based on his own family experience. (Oscar nominations noted in parens)
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor) is...well, masterful. What Anderson freely admits, and the actors deny, is that it is a meticulously researched story of L. Ron Hubbard and the cult of Scientology. In addition to the available literature, Anderson unearthed pamphlets and other contemporary ephemera that came out of Scientology circa 1950, but the cast, fearing harassment from the ranks of the faithful, have insisted that no parallel is intended. That said, it is important to realize that the film is not a standard biopic. Its source material may be Hubbard, but the film has a propulsion it could not have achieved had Anderson set out to do nothing more than tell the story of Scientology.
Every actor in the film delivers a virtuoso performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman's megalomaniac Lancaster Dodd is a self-deluded narcissist, the center around which his self-made constellation revolves. Joaquin Phoenix plays the alcohol-/chemical-deranged Freddie Quell (whose mother has been institutionalized with schizophrenia). (If there is a wee problem with the casting it's that one could say Phoenix has been type cast as the self-destructive persona of his documentary hoax I'm Still Here, though Quell is the victim of his demons, not the author of them.) Phoenix's performance is physically wrenching juxtaposed against Hoffman's beady control.
Both men give powerful, nuanced performances, but, as the projector rolls and this magisterial film builds momentum, we come to realize that at its center, the true mover and shaker is Dodd's wife (his third) Peggy, played with equal certainty and nuance by Amy Adams. Dodd may manipulate his gullible followers, but Peggy is Dodd's sly puppeteer. She knows exactly to what extent she will allow Dodd to feed his habit for power and control with his new pet project, Freddie Quell. And she knows exactly when it is time to intervene and withdraw the drug. She is like the queen who will stop at nothing to see her son made king, the mother lion defending her cubs.
Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s cinematography is beautiful, at times breathtakingly so. Johnny Greenwood's score subtly heightens the action without a trace of emotional manipulation. (John Williams could learn a lesson.) The set dressing, the costumes, the hair styles -- everything is pitch perfect. We are left with a powerful examination of human hubris and the dangers of the unexamined life. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critis' Pick)
Ben Affleck's Argo (Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor) is a nail biter. On November 4, 1979 Iranian revolutionaries stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American citizens hostage. Six others managed to escape to the safety of the Canadian ambassador's house. CIA officer Antonio Mendez came up with a crazy scheme by which to get them safely out of Iran, and was sent to Tehran to carry out the ruse: the escapees would pose as a Canadian film crew scoping out locations in Iran for a fake sci-fi film, Argo. That Affleck keeps us on the very edge of our seats, holding our breath, squirming with anxiety -- when we already know the ending -- is remarkable. John Goodman and Alan Arkin offer much needed comic relief as the Hollywood insiders (makeup artist and producer) who give credence to the hair-brained plot. Their location stateside in Hollywood also provides some breathing room in juxtaposition to the claustrophobia of otherwise cramped settings. Despite his roles as both director and star, Affleck deserves credit for not dominating the film and for giving his cast space. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)
I am thrilled that Helen Hunt has an Oscar nomination for Ben Lewin's The Sessions (Best Supporting Actress). I only wish that John Hawkes had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as well. The Sessions is the true story of 38-year-old Mark O'Brien. O'Brien, who died in 1999, was a journalist and a poet. He was also a quadriplegic, having suffered childhood polio. After much reflection he makes what is for him a momentous decision. He no longer wishes to be a virgin. Hunt plays the sex therapist he hires with enormous nuance, subtlety and care. I started to say, with sensitivity, but that would not come close to the benevolence she brings to the role. Either performance could have been disastrous in other hands, yet together Hawkes and Hunt gently weave O'Brien's story with humanity and grace. (Stephen Holden's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)
Daniel-Day Lewis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes... distracted, I started to wonder which big-name actors would NOT appear in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (Best Picture, Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor). I was also annoyed that virtually every African American in the film was expected to look supplicatingly at all the nice white people. I was gratified, therefore, when, after the onslaught of laudatory reviews, I ran across a critical opinion in The New York Times editorial pages by Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern and the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. The film is determined, she argues, "to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role."
Masur informs us that, "In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley [played by Gloria Reuben in the film] and William Slade [played by Stephen Henderson "as an avuncular butler, a black servant out of central casting," says Masur] were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes."
We are right back in Tate Taylor's 2011 adaptation of The Help. One expectation I harbored did not materialize, to my surprise. I was dreading one of those gratuitously manipulative John Williams scores. Instead, the score is, by Williams' standards, positively understated. It evokes popular music from the era including the Stephen Foster song "Was My Brother in the Battle" and George Root's "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and the final track is reminiscent of one of Lincoln's favorite songs, "For the Dear Old Flag I Die" about a drummer boy who died at the Battle of Gettysburg. (A. O. Scott's NYT review/A NYT Critics' Pick)
"Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible" by Nelson George in the New York Times
My February issue of Harper's Magazine was in my mailbox yesterday, and if you don't subscribe, go out and buy it or get it at your library. The Easy Chair essay (alas Lewis Lapham is gone, but...) by Thomas Frank calls Spielberg out in no uncertain terms. I will confine myself to only the last two paragraphs here, but you must read THE WHOLE THING:
"Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already -- Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad -- and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.
"If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don't stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists -- that's a task for a real auteur."
Spanish director J. A. Bayona's The Impossible (Best Actress) is an international effort and utilizes digital imagery as well as old-school modeling and editing techniques to reproduce the devastating tsunami that, in 2004, pummeled 14 countries the day after Christmas. It pinpoints our gaze on the true story of a single family vacationing in Thailand, all five of whom miraculously survived. The film could so easily have tipped into the sniffling realms of Hallmark Hall of Fame land, but thanks to deeply felt performances, most notably Naomi Watts as the critically injured mother, it rises above its based on a true story-disaster movie origins. I have to agree with A. O. Scott, however, that "the terrible effects of the tsunami on the local population are barely acknowledged." Somewhat like the slaves of Spielberg's Lincoln, the few Thai characters presented in The Impossible seem to be there simply to serve the tourists.
Last year's My Own Private Cinema covered the short documentary The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom: Lucy Walker’s self-described visual poem, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (UK), opens with chilling amateur footage of the approaching tsunami wave making its inexorable way inland to higher and higher ground. Dread sets in as it becomes clear that the path of destruction has no apparent limit. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011 -- just before the sakura, or cherry blossom, blooms -- and in the aftermath of the tragedy, Walker's camera finds a number of victims whose words vacillate between utter despair and stoic resolve. Each conveys a Shinto perspective that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. The Japanese symbol of hope and renewal, sakura is central to the culture, and at one point we visit the Miharu-Takizakura cherry tree in Miharu, Fukushima, which is more than 1,000 years old. It endures, and the people of Japan will likewise endure. [With hypnotic score by Moby.]
Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (Best Picture, Actress, Original Screenplay)
I attend a Sunday morning class at my Unitarian Universalist Church where we are entering the final nine weeks of a 36-week lecture series from The Great Courses DVDs, Why Evil Exists, with a wonderful lecturer, Dr. Charles Mathewes of the Universities of Virginia and Chicago. As a UU church, many points of view are represented in our discussions after the lectures, and one among us is a self-professed Libertarian who hews to an Ayn Randian brand of self-interest and greed-as-good. A couple of weeks ago, fed up with his oft-repeated line that any action is acceptable as long as it hurts no one else, I raised my hand and said, "My very existence on this earth hurts someone or something else. I eat, I drive a car, I pollute. There is no such thing as purely benign existence, but there are all sorts of window dressings." A young woman across from me raised her hand and said, "She is absolutely correct. I served in Iraq, and my presence there shielded all of you from facing the truth that she is talking about. I was there so that you didn't have to be. When I am there you can all remain complacent and look away."
This young woman's remarks echoed in my head as I watched Kathryn Bigelow's virtuoso Zero Dark Thirty. I had not expected the controversy that has arisen over the film's depiction of torture. I get the impression, overall, that our politicians, the CIA, and certain members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doth protest too much. Bigelow does not make heroes of torturers; she shows them to us -- and by extension, she shows us that we are them, which is the real underbelly of the protestations against the portrayals of torture in the film. There has been no large scale popular movement against torture by United States citizens for the simple reason that as a country we really don't mind. What we do mind is having someone remove the blinkers and point our heads at it.
There was an exchange in a much lesser film earlier this year that struck me. In Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy from the Robert Ludlum franchise, Eric, a retired US Air Force colonel responsible for overseeing the CIA's clandestine operations, remembers a conversation he had with Aaron, a member of a US Defense Department's black ops program, in the field:
Eric (Edward Norton): We got screwed on the intel, okay? Nobody knew those people were in there. It would be perfectly normal for a person to have doubts about the morality of what we just asked you to do.
Aaron (Jeremy Renner): Is that a question, sir?
Eric: No, it's not. Tune in to what I'm trying to say to you. Do you know what a Sin Eater is?
[Aaron shakes his head]
Well, that's what we are. We are the Sin Eaters. It means that we take the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it deep down inside of us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary. You understand?
Aaron: Will that be all?
Compared with Bigelow's film, that is a rather clumsy exchange. CIA agent Maya, in a complex performance by Jessica Chastain, does not explicate this reality. She inhabits it with single-minded focus. Without the crutch of explication, Bigelow's film puts us in the midst of the moral dilemma and forces us each to grapple with our moral complicity without herself passing judgment. That is an achievement.
Beyond the torture brouhaha, Zero Dark Thirty is the work of an extraordinary film maker. The editing is genius. I would be fascinated to have a count of the sheer number of shots that make up the film, and yet taken together, one to the next, they give the film fluidity, a smoothly undulating rhythm that reminds us that Bigelow cites Peckinpah and the early Scorsese (Mean Streets) as influences, along with David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Hitchcock's oeuvre.
Another notable aspect of the film is that it seems virtually score-less. For a film that runs to 2 hours, 37 minutes, Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack comes in at just under 54 minutes, and much of it is almost inaudible in the film, the sounds emanating from the action and slowly morphing into the deep rumbling of a tympani or a single sustained note from a flute or reed.
Manohla Dargis's NYT review/ A NYT Critics' Pick
"As Enigmatic as Her Picture: Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty" from the NYT Magazine's Oscars Issue
David Denby's New Yorker review
NYT columnist Roger Cohen on "Why 'Zero Dark Thirty' Works"