The last time in recent Oscar history that as much as three war films were in the Best Pic race was 1998, when Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Life is Beautiful, all lost to the non-war film, Shakespeare in Love.¬† World War II is as comfortable a fit with the AMPAS as tea and lemon. That was an easy war, a winnable war. We got to lope in, kill the Nazis, bomb the Japs and waltz out like the heroes of the world. Our filmmakers have often delved into the suffering and trauma our soldiers faced going into battle — we’ve seen the heroism of WWII. The victory was hard fought, hard won, and a bright spot in our own military’s past.
The Vietnam war made an impact on the Oscar race back in the 1970s, with Coming Home, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. But it wasn’t until Oliver Stone made Platoon that our collective opinion on Vietnam shifted from the fault of the war mongers, to our empathy for the soldiers who had to return home to a country that didn’t see them as heroes. Stone’s Platoon seemed to say it all, and to say it dramatically enough that it could make an impact on audiences and on the AMPAS. Most would now agree that Frances Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now, or Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Full Metal Jacket were better than Platoon, but Platoon was the movie that did it for Oscar. Born on the 4th of July came next, but soon, no Vietnam was again forgotten.
After 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq, many filmmakers have tried and failed to bring Iraq war into the public consciousness. Even though The Hurt Locker may be the definitive film on this war, it was still lumped together with all of the other “Iraq movies” that supposedly no one wanted to see. The truth about Iraq is that it is even more depressing than Vietnam, if you can imagine that. I was a kid when the Vietnam war was coming to an end and I remember how no one wanted to talk about it either. For a while Americans were up in arms about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a while there, it really did stir debate. But that moment has come and gone. Too many dead soldiers heading home in coffins that get redacted from the news; too many suicide bombers killing themselves and taking women and children with them – too much depressing information about a situation that isn’t any closer to being resolved today as it was a few years ago.
Meanwhile, we are repeating the mistake we made during the Vietnam war where movies are concerned: we are forgetting that there are heroes who are still fighting, even if we aren’t winning. They are heroes too, even if they aren’t going to be celebrated in film after film after film that wins one Oscar after another. The Hurt Locker is one of the few films that does that. It says so much without having to resort to melodramatic lectures of the sort that left-leaning filmmakers like to write, and audiences won’t pay to see.
But the Iraq war wasn’t the subject of the Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece, James Cameron went there too, only he did it with fantasy. Both James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino took to the fantasy approach to war. And it appears that audiences preferred those versions better. And why wouldn’t they? The losing side becomes the winning side and evil gets its ass kicked twice from Sunday.
Inglourious Basterds and Avatar both indulge in make believe heroism where the victims triumph because the director wants them to. Avatar has been firing up the downtrodden in different countries all over the world, like China and now, Palestine. They all imagine themselves Jake Sully, sending a message to people who have all of the money and all of the military might that they can’t take their land, they can’t change their way of life. It’s a lovely dream. But sadly, it exists in Cameron’s vivid animated landscape with the help of a planetary system. In real life, tanks still rule. In real life, Israel will crush Palestine and the government in China? Forget about it. But maybe, in some small way, Avatar keeps the freedom alive in their hearts.
Inglourious Basterds helps those of us still dwelling in the aftershocks of the Holocaust, yes, all of these decades later. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago, really. We are all living with the notion that even here in America we pretended we didn’t know what was going on in the camps “over there.” It went on for so long and no one did anything about it. It took us way too long to become involved and once we were, the Americans were the heroes. The World War II story is one the Academy can’t let go of. Voters are teased about being Holocaust obsessed, but really, can you blame them? There was no better war tailor-made for Hollywood like the second World War. It was the only one that had a “happy” ending. To hear Westerners tell it, anyway. I’m sure there are plenty of other people who think it ended in the worst tragedy mankind has ever endured.
Either which way, in his own odd and creative way, Tarantino has managed to bring it all up again. Here we are thinking about our own investment in the way the war played out in the movies then, and in the decades since. Tarantino flirts with some dangerous ideas in his films. I’m sure that many Jews who got the screener for Basterds were put off by the Swastika placed cleverly in the title. That the Swastika is a “hip brand” has no doubt garnered some resentment. Moreover, the Nazis are in the film are fairly badass. Not just Christoph Waltz but the way Tarantino uses music when they arrive to pick up Shosanna.
(as an aside, doesn’t this Tarkovsky clip remind you of Inglourious Basterds?)
Yet, Inglourious Basterds is an interesting film in that it isn’t an easy emotional get at all. The satisfaction one feels for watching Nazis scum get their brutal punishment is hard won. We don’t like feeling good to see someone beaten to death, or scalped. We need to have our revenge in a much neater way — the way we usually have it delivered to us – the Avatar way: bad guys do bad things. We fight back and kill them all.
Interestingly, the Academy appears to have embraced the film, even though one might be inclined to presume they wouldn’t. Basterds is behind only Avatar and The Hurt Locker with the most nods, and it has the crucial ones in Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Editing. It picked up nomination in Sound as well. Many had believed, after the SAG ensemble win, that it would have come into the race leading the nominations. In such a situation, it probably would have been unstoppable. With an extra nomination for Melanie Laurent or Diane Kruger, perhaps an art direction or costume nod – I have no doubt, that with 11 or 12 nods, Inglourious Basterds could not be beat.
Similarly, if Avatar had a screenplay nod or an an acting nod (Sigourney Weaver perhaps), or if The Hurt Locker had a supporting actor nod — either of those two things would have tipped this race just enough that the winner would be easier to call. As it is, and with the preferential ballot in play and ten nominees for Best Pic potentially drawing votes, it’s a conundrum.
But to spin this thing back to the themes of war, one has to wonder what is going on in terms of our the tastes of critics and voters. If it really is down to Avatar versus The Hurt Locker does it then mean that it’s down to fantasy versus reality?¬† And if it’s fantasy, does that mean we just aren’t ready to embrace to the impact of all that we’ve gotten ourselves into in Iraq?
At the end of the day, the ride stops, and the safety belts are undone and you have to step back into the light of the world we live in. I am not sure where the hearts and minds of voters will want to dwell. Will they want to escape right back into the imaginary worlds? Or will they prefer to feel the heat of the blade pressing hard to the skin.