The Oscars offer an interesting cultural study, one that understandably receives a fair amount of skepticism from Christians. The annual fashion display and awards show is yet another demonstration of the disconnect between certain regions of the country. As Wendell Berry might put it, the rural areas of the world export crops and resources, while the cities (particularly on the Eastern and Western seaboards) export their ideologies, even if the rest of the country doesn’t necessarily embrace them. To indict myself here, something’s always felt odd about a rural South Carolinian laughing along with Seinfeld.
The Oscars also remind us that entertainment has become a popular medium of countrywide conversation. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the products of Hollywood—and there are at least a few reasons to pay attention, especially given this year’s surprisingly positive trend.
What’s this trend? In short, this year’s best picture nominees are a surprisingly moral bunch. Almost without exception, they focus on moral issues and are driven by a desire to protect the outcasts and foreigners, the widows and orphans. Let’s look at a few examples.
Bridge of Spies
With Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg reminds us he is one of the most important moral filmmakers of our day.
Spend enough time in critical circles and you’ll begin to discern a sharp backlash to Spielberg and his filmography. This is typically for two reasons: First, his film Jaws is seen as the end of the auteur-driven era of the ’70s and the beginning of the age of “low brow” blockbusters. Second, he routinely refuses to tell adult tragedies. This latter complaint is the more important of the two: in a world that equates adulthood with accepting the tragedy of life, Spielberg consistently makes hopeful films that seem to be built around an objective moral structure. Even when he speaks about tragic events, he does so through a hopeful story (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and so on.).
As film critic Brian Tellerico points out, Spielberg loves to find the noble within ordinary people. In Spielberg’s world, the average man or woman is a powerful moral agent; given the right circumstances and conviction, he or she can bring about tremendous good. Spielberg agrees with a seminary professor of mine: “What man does matters.”
Bridge of Spies is a film about a normal man (an insurance attorney, magnetically played by Tom Hanks) who sees defending a Soviet spy in court as his American duty. Its current ramifications are hard to miss: as the fear of terrorism escalates, we’ll be pressured more and more to give up the values that assert and uphold the basic dignity of all people. So Bridge of Spies asks us this question: if our morals change under pressure, what good were they in the first place?
Spotlight and The Big Short
Spotlight and The Big Short are two radically different films about radically different worlds, but they share similar goals. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, is about the Boston reporters who helped uncover the systemic sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in the early 2000s. Even as the film received critical praise (including from Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition), I was concerned that I couldn’t handle the content.
Yet Spotlight is a restrained and empathetic film. Its tone is not self-righteous but mournful. Hanging over the entire proceedings is the sense of what could have been: a community dependent on faithful priests. The film could have veered toward the exploitative, but instead McCarthy tells a story that gives voice to those who have suffered at the hands of unmitigated and unrighteous religious power.
In a similar way The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay, speaks for those who’ve suffered at the hands of unchecked and unrighteous economic power. The movie comes across as good-time entertainment but frequently pulls back the curtain to reveal a machine in which the wealthy play with the fates of the poor, dependent, and naïve. Even The Big Short, which depicts more immorality than the other films mentioned here,1 has a deeply moral message, one directed toward empathizing with those suffering abused at the hands of sanctioned power structures.
Mad Max: Fury Road
This could well have been the year of the “gender identity” film. It feels like a new one came out every month. But the most prominent movie on the best picture list to address gender was, surprisingly, the hard-boiled action flick Mad Max: Fury Road. Certainly, the film has strong feminist overtones, but it also presents a praiseworthy condemnation of hyper-masculinity.2
Our first introduction to the villain reveals that his flesh is rotting and covered in sores. To hide this deformity, he wears armor that molds his flesh into the “perfect” warrior physique. This theme runs throughout: physically sick and emotionally insecure men attempt to cover the truth with overwrought performances (large cars, blaring guitars, and love of warfare).
The primary narrative is about a man (Max) who rejects this vision of masculinity and learns to sacrifice himself in response to the moral fortitude of a woman (Furiosa) trying to free a group of sex slaves. Max does this not only by risking his life, but also by laying down his ego. The pivotal scene might be when, in a crucial situation, Max hands the last rifle over to Furiosa because she’s the better shot. In the end, when he attempts to lead the women back to “Eden,” they are willing to follow him. They know his leadership is sacrificial and bent toward serving others, not himself. Powerful stuff for a film that could have floated by on action alone.
Rest of the Show
I haven’t fully addressed all of the best picture nominees, partially because I’ve not seen Brooklyn or Room, though I suspect they may be the strongest films in the group. The Martian is a satisfying popcorn film, a traditional survival story. The Revenant is a technical marvel, but I didn’t see much more than a simple revenge story that grasps unsuccessfully at spiritual straws.
That said, this is a pretty remarkable batch of films. In a time when much of the country seems hyper-focused on one or two agendas, Hollywood has offered us a group of films with wide-ranging interests, each of them surprisingly moral. How do we treat our enemies? How do we serve self-sacrificially? How do we speak for the oppressed?
I’m grateful these questions are being asked.
1 There is strong language throughout and a brief scene of nudity.
2 I am indebted to Soren Kornegay, RUF campus pastor at Savannah College of Arts and Design, for some of these thoughts.