It’s either a lucky thing or a terrible thing that one of our adaptations as humans is our capacity to hold out hope. This is probably true in Syria, and it was certainly true in Nazi Germany. Hope, as Emily Dickinson wrote, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. Holding out hope in Shawshank. Holding out hope in Auschwitz. Holding out hope when all seems lost proves that somewhere in our DNA we fundamentally can’t let go of it.
9/11 changed America. We all remember it. There are big moves in politics that shift the pendulum. The Clinton presidency had the cheating scandal that was 100% orchestrated by the Republicans who were already in power and are still in power today. Nothing has really changed that much. Even if we managed to elect a Democrat to the White House, the Republicans in Congress continue to run the show. So when George W. Bush was handed the presidency by a conservative Supreme Court in 2000, there was a massive pendulum shift, a moment of doubt, fear, and panic among Democrats to see finally how little power they had.
But Bush’s presidency would be defined by 9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq, not the 2000 election. We would all be defined by 9/11 heading out of it. It shook and fractured America in ways no one could really predict. I wrote about the Oscar race through the attack on 9/11, and I watched the race to see if filmmakers or the Academy would somehow directly confront not just the attack but the Bush presidency and what was happening to America. The best you can come up with is three years of darkly-themed Best Picture winners – to date my personal favorite period of the modern Oscar era. The Departed in 2006, No Country for Old Men in 2007 and The Hurt Locker in 2009. These films defined the era more than any others. But ever since The Hurt Locker won, we have only had Best Picture winners that lifted us up rather than confirmed our worst suspicions about humanity. Those three films really do nail down human nature, don’t they?
The Departed – corruption and betrayal
No Country for Old Men – the bad guys always win
The Hurt Locker – America is addicted to war
Since then though:
The King’s Speech
12 Years a Slave
These films either evoke nostalgia and heroism – or, as in the case with Birdman, reflect a lament for the dying art of Hollywood cinema.
What happened to shift things? Well, Obama happened. He ushered in what was supposed to be the audacity of hope. Obama had so much fire and optimism. He had faith in the American people to do the right thing. But then he had to watch as only 30% showed up to vote in the midterms handing power back, once again, to the Republicans.
Now, we’ve hit another major shift in our culture. It is perhaps the darkest in my lifetime. Obama’s America will have to fight to hold on to what he built, what his coalition built, and the America we thought we knew. Trump’s America isn’t even conservative America. It’s nothing of the kind. It’s a Fox News America. An Ann Coulter America. A Breitbart America. And in that America, white men are the perpetual victims. They’re not just victims. They’re whining, mewling, cowering, cowardly “deplorables” forever complaining that tyrannical Hillary and Obama stripped them of their rights and made them beg and starve on the streets of America while black and brown people supposedly live on entitlements like kings and queens. In the eyes of these fearful men (and the women who cling to them), they and they along were fighting for the REAL America – the deplorables with their scrappy ill-mannered “outsider” leader (who is one of the richest people in the world and shits on a golden toilet).
This woman sums it up perfectly, the “poor us” attitude of what drove whites to rally around Trump:
In Trump’s America she will be celebrated, called an activist for the victimized whites at the hands of black store clerks who try to oppress them by explaining a special sack for their goodies will cost an extra dollar.
And then there’s this guy:
Why do they see a different America than the one we see? Part of it is the blinders they get to wear in their reaffirming social media cliques. Trump used Twitter to make himself seem like one of them. He used it to render the power of the legitimate media useless. He used it as his white-panic self-pitying megaphone to reach out to everyone else who feels like a victim now. The more Hillary’s ads on Trump revealed the little man behind the curtain, the more defensive they felt. Any time the New York Times wrote anything negative about him, poor Trump would cry on Twitter and build yet more sympathy. The debates, same thing. On our side, we were horrified to witness what was happening. Could the United States once again sink into an mindset of ethnic cleansing? Could we really elect the self-inflated man-baby who is a totalitarian at best, a fascist at worst? Now we know the answer. And now we know the answer why. Oh sure, the far-left is going to capitalize on this loss and pretend it was about the working class whites in the Rust Belt. But it wasn’t.
It was all so cunning. Even Melania’s anti-bullying platform played into Trump’s “poor us” mantra. Quite impressive, really, when you put it all together. And did you notice how many people you knew and had once admired seemed to somehow to be swayed, to fall for the insidious narrative, and even join in? To likewise feel oppressed by political correctness (Bill Maher, Michael Moore), or Hillary’s oppressiveness (Harry Shearer, Viggo Mortensen, Susan Sarandon)? What was going on became something bigger and deeper than our pleas, “Can we just try to save the Supreme Court, if nothing else.” That something deeper is what we’re going to have to poke at when we try to understand how the pervasive mood in America will affect this year’s Oscar race, and how the seismic shifts in our national attitude over the past decade have helped determine most of our Best Picture winners, save one or two.
As someone who has been watching the Oscar race since 1999, and for anyone who has gone from Bill Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama and now to Donald Trump, one can’t help but look at patterns. Is it just a coincidence that the last film to win Best Picture along with Best Actress was Million Dollar Baby in 2004, 12 years ago? The last film to win Best Picture with women as the central characters was Chicago in 2002, 14 years ago. What does that tell us about the films Hollywood chooses to produce — to appeal to American audiences, as well as shape our expectations?
Serious-minded filmgoers like to think that trends in national cinema that are honored by the Oscar race reflect something bigger than just isolated favorites. We like to think the history of the Oscars can somehow define each year for generations to come who will look back at the arc of Hollywood’s progress. At the very least the Oscars preserve in amber the singular moments in American cinema and our cultural evolution. We were already asking ourselves this question before we knew the outcome to this year’s election. We asked this question when it seemed, for a time, like a new and better America really was about to be born. We now have our answer, and it’s the answer few of us wanted. I can only come up with one word for how most of us now feel: shattered.
When I look at the Best Picture race, I can sometimes feel shattered too.
We see the futility of the family patriarch who tries to do right by his family but can’t, not with limited means, not in a country with so little opportunity for anyone disadvantaged, not when tragedy looms around every corner.
The three films that exemplify that message unmistakably are:
Manchester by the Sea – a father figure who feels overwhelmed
Fences – a father who struggles and falters
Hell or High Water – a father who prevails, but at what cost?
Man’s crisis of conscience — our search for life’s meaning — the moral challenges wherein the boomer generation is starting to stare down life’s final act. The icons who shaped us are dying left and right, each passing seeming to dismantle little by little everything that defined our generation. The movies that encapsulate that disquiet are unmistakably:
Hacksaw Ridge – which hits us relentlessly with the unending violence of war.
Silence – a search for deeper meaning that questions what we’re taught about culture clash.
Lion – a inextinguishable quest to come to terms with one’s roots and identity.
Live by Night – a saga of paths we follow, right and wrong, seeking an American identity amid corruption.
Then we have a pair of traditional stories of heroism, of men who can meet the challenge, the men who are there save us, even when their motives are questioned or the system is rigged against them:
Sully – a split second decision is scrutinized and dissected until it becomes unrecognizable. A celebration of first responders, many of whom had not faced a potential tragedy since 9/11.
Patriots Day – no question about it, a story of first responders who were on the scene in a heartbeat to rescue victims at the Boston Marathon bomb attack.
Films about the politics of right now — the films, probably more than any others, that will reflect for future viewers what America under Obama has felt like:
Loving – a couple stands up for freedom to marry in a time of racism.
Miss Sloane – a lobbyist stands up to the NRA in a time of gun fetish fear.
Moonlight – a coming of age story that crystallizes how it feels to come of age in Obama’s America, when our new freedoms are still tangled in old injunctions.
Films with women as heroes — the films where women hold things together, provide strength, resolve, intelligence and focus amid panic all around them. Obama’s milestone administration laid the groundwork to usher in the first woman president. Indeed, more Americans voted for that woman than had voted for any white man in our history. She came up a few thousand votes short in four states, but that can never erase what she achieved, nor can it ever lessen the culture quake she created.
Jackie – finally a tribute to the woman who can truly be credited with holding a shattered nation together when the unthinkable happened.
20th Century Women – makes a pretty good case that women make the world go round, and an excellent case that some men can appreciate it.
Arrival – no other film would have more majestically ushered the Clintonian era than this one.
Hidden Figures – tells the untold story of the women forced to use “colored” bathrooms whose intelligence can be credited with helping to put white men in space.
And finally, we get back to the one movie that really isn’t about anything political, particularly, and it isn’t really about feeling shattered so much either. What La La Land actually is, and why will likely continue to resonate, is that it captures more than who we are or who we will be — but who we were, ever so briefly, just moments before so much that we care about slipped away. This movie is about our impossible wish to turn back time to make things different. It’s about how we are often betrayed by the moment — our bliss and our impulsive recklessness — because when we’re caught up in the fervor we’re unable see our future clearly. La La Land is ultimately about how things might really have been made perfect if we hadn’t been our own worst enemies. It’s funny, isn’t it, how a film can end up defining an era without even really trying?
Finally, though, what really drives all of these films because it drives their filmmakers, is hope. It sounds cliché and perhaps it isn’t even worth saying anymore, but really, when you think about it there is the ever so slight, shimmering apparition of hope in each of these films. Manchester by the Sea is not about someone who has given up because he can’t live up to expectations; rather, it’s about someone who is hanging on in spite of not being able to live up to expectations. Fences is about the future of a family stitched together by three different spools of thread. They make a family out of broken pieces and in each one of the surviving characters is the one thing they have in common that their patriarch, Troy, did not have. A place in their hearts and minds for the potential for a better world for themselves.
Hacksaw Ridge, in all of its blood and gore, is really about hope that we might not be undone by our worst tendencies, that we can withstand them if we’re willing to do what it takes. Loving is about living the truth and not giving in until the world catches up. Hell or High Water is that one last grab to salvage the crippled American dream.
Some of these films reside comfortably in Trump’s America. How can they not, when he exploited people who were genuinely hurting and taught them how to turn that pain into hatred, if they didn’t already know how. The futility of the white working class American man can be seen in many of these films, and in it’s been simmering in many films over the last ten years. Why did this anxiety coincide with the election of the first black President, even among those on the left? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe I don’t want to know.
Maybe I’ll do what none of us has no choice but to do. Hope. The audacity of hope. Perhaps that’s the last thing we have left. The only thing we have that keeps us going. Hope sings the tune without words. And never stops — at all.