Oscar Talk: The Impossible, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty

E: Here are a few more offerings in my review and Oscar potential series.  As ever, there will be spoilers, so proceed caution:

The Impossible

Yes, there are some issues with this story of the Boxing Day Tsunami.  It’s an outsiders experience, and the filmmakers have even changed the ethnicity of those outsiders (Spanish to British) to make the film more accessible to English speaking audiences.  All that said,  it’s an amazing story beautifully told.  You feel the pain and suffering, the bewilderment of the family members as they struggle to reunite (or reconcile themselves to the fact that their loved ones are most likely dead). The Belon family travels to Thailand for a holiday to reconnect and relax, to spend time together in seclusion at a beautiful seaside resort; then the sea rises, and swallows them, spitting mother Maria and son Lucas into raging torrents of water.  As they’re hurled toward each other and pulled apart, the water surges over cars and trees, a terrifying hidden world of obstacles and dangers.  It’s a stark, devastating reminder of how little we humans can do against the oft sleeping might of this planet.  And it asks us what’s left when civilization at least temporarily vanishes.  Who are we, when everything we know is swept away?  What are we left with?  What do we make from our despair?  I’ve said it before; I’m a sucker for true life stories, and this one pulled me in.

I find it hard to believe that this is only Naomi Watts’ second Oscar nomination (or, for that matter, that her nod for best actress is The Impossible‘s only nomination).  She was famously snubbed for her work in break out film Mulholland Drive, but of the really impressive work she’s done since (The Painted Veil, Eastern Promises, Fair Game), only 21 Grams has been rewarded.  She tends to split audiences; some find her raw and moving, others too histrionic, too hysterical.  In The Impossible, she’s neither; despite the operatic subject matter she gives an understated, naturalistic performance.  I adored her work, but this year Naomi has no buzz.  The race for Best Actress is between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence.  Hopefully Watts will have her day in the sun; she’s truly one of the greats.


A friend reminded me recently that Lincoln, too, is a true life story.  What she made me realize is that, while I love to see feats of incredible heroism performed by every day people, I hadn’t really been counting this story as such, because there’s nothing ordinary about our 16th president.  Oh, Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin beginnings and his education were humble, we know this, but seeing this movie only increases our sense that he was a man apart, a brilliant statesman caught up in a terrible grind of history.  Does he choose to stop the unimaginable slaughter of the civil war, as his political opponents, the public and many in his own party would prefer, even if the peace can only be made on the backs of slaves?  How to balance expediency, bloodshed, and timing, so that you can eventually achieve the greatest good?   What does it take to be extraordinary in right moment, to be the perfect person for the moment?  And if you know anything about American history and the Reconstruction period, you know just how deeply our country suffered from this man’s loss.

We all know that Daniel Day Lewis is going to win best actor.  (When I saw The Master, I wondered how someone could better the work Joachim Phoenix did there; now I know.)  His portrayal of the master raconteur and manipulator never falters.  He is never less than spellbinding. He deserves the Oscar; it is his.  Anything else would be unthinkable.  Day Lewis’s road to the podium has been eased by Les Miz not coming together as a real contender (thanks in part to Tom Hooper’s snub) and the shocking exclusion of John Hawkes from the nominations.  It’s quite possible that Tommy Lee Jones could win best supporting actor; of course, on the other hand, he’s just as likely to lose. What interests me a little more is why we’re not talking about Lincoln as the overwhelming favorite to win Best Picture. Words like masterpiece don’t get slung around lightly, but they’re used here, and rightly so. The answer I’d give is twofold.  First, the snub of Ben Affleck has galvanized the best picture race, pushing Argo to the top of the heap.  The other? Moral and narrative complexity.

Overturning slavery?  A clear and obvious good.  But trading thousands of lives for it?  Lying to your allies as well as your detractors, playing both sides against each other because no one else besides you sees that this is the moment?  Tricky.  Not being sure what you’re doing is legal?  Trickier still.  What do you make of a film whose emotional highlight comes from a principled campaigner disavowing his most closely held views so as not to scare away voters, so as to save his cause in the long run? The film details the real horse-trading involved with passing the 13th amendments; votes actually bought (many by a peculiar, profane and rotund fellow named, I kid you not, Bilbo, played by the golden icon of 80s cool James Spader) and parties deceived, the public lied to.

And even with this, Spielberg – so long derided as a populist entertainer, one who turned his films into roller coaster rides of manipulative emotion – pulls back again and again from the expected moment.  We don’t see the decisive vote cast for the amendment, even though we see people keeping count.  We back away from the most obvious celebrations.  We say goodbye to the president before his assassination, spending instead his final moments in another theater with his youngest son.  These are not easy choices, and it seems to me that for all critics early railing against him, the Hollywood establishment might like Spielberg better with the expected bombast.

On the other hand, while Argo clearly explains that the hostage crisis had been produced by decades of American interference in and mismanagement of Iranian affairs, it tells a clear story of a heroic underdog with a tense, exciting, weirdly fun scheme.  Think Ocean’s 11 with machine guns and bad hair and lives at stake instead of money.  You can tell the good guys from the bad guys based on what they do.  There’s no such easy opposition in Lincoln.

It’s still possible that Lincoln could win Best Picture, although that seems rather unlikely at this point.  Until the Globes, I would have said that Tony Kushner was a shoo-in for adapted screenplay, but could the surge of love for Argo sweep Chris Terrio into that slot?  (Ugh.)  It’s possible, though legendary Pulitzer Prize winner Kushner ought to still have his proponents.  Sally Field has been nominated twice before, and has two Oscars to show for it; though it’s technically possible for her to overtake Anne Hathaway, it seems incredibly unlikely.  Not unless there’s real fatigue in Hollywood with her frontrunner status, anyway. Costumes, production design – perhaps.  But there is one odd yet very important place this film could score; best director.  Steven Spielberg has helmed one best picture winner (Schindler’s List) but has a second best director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan.  If we’re to assume that Argo will indeed win best picture, voters need to choose somebody to pick up the one statuette that Ben Affleck can’t win.  It could very easily be Spielberg.  After all, he’s done it before.

Zero Dark Thirty

If you think Lincoln is too talky, too stodgy for best picture, well then!  Why not ZDT?  As it premiered in late December to fawning reviews and critics prizes, Oscar-watchers wondered where to place it in the hunt.  A frontrunner?  The frontrunner?  It’s so topical and so much edgier than populist standard bearer Les Miz!  The hunt for Osama Bin Laden!  Torture!  A tough female protagonist!  Though much has been said and written about the shocking snub of director Kathryn Bigelow torpedoing the Oscar chances of yet another true story, the truth is that this movie has been dogged by controversy since its beginning.  The final third of the script had to be entirely re-written when the real life story ended in May of 2011.  Congress wanted to investigate whether the filmmakers were given inappropriate access.  And then the film was denounced on the floor of the Senate as supporting torture – giving the false impression that actionable (even vital) information leading to the death of Osama Bin Laden had been produced by the so called advanced interrogation techniques.  The Hollywood Reporter even produced a lengthy story implying that the relationship between director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (teammates from The Hurt Locker) was somehow unnatural, that Boal was some sort of Svengali with an uncanny hold over the director.

And so a promising film was screwed over in the awards press.  No, it was never even close to a sure thing.  And not all negative press derails a film’s Oscar chances (note particularly the campaign against A Beautiful Mind) but the preponderance of negative press on a key liberal issue, combined with a lack of box office, seems to have done its work here.  And if Lincoln is morally complex, good lord, what will the public make of the graphic, unflinching depictions of torture?  And Jessica Chastain’s stoic face as she watches it?  And the fact that the movie shows that torture yield results?  It’s a tough subject, and a tough sell – and let’s face it.  Shouldn’t it be a tough sell?  If we’ve come to the point where we’re no longer conflicted about torture, what does it say about us?  Which is not to say anything about the film or its quality other than to confirm that an easy feel good story it is not.

Jessica Chastain could still pull out a win for her tenacious, steely role as the CIA agent who refuses to let go of a lead, and the film might take take some technical categories.  But Jennifer Lawrence took the SAG, and charms everywhere she goes with her earthy sense of humor and no-baloney honesty.  BAFTA should give us the last best clue; if Chastain doesn’t pull out a win there, her chances may be stalled permanently.


One comment on “Oscar Talk: The Impossible, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty

  1. […] have a multi-pronged theory about this, which readers of this space have heard me explain before.  In brief, it’s this: take a well made, plot driven thriller, set in a topically-relevant […]

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