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The Oscars, which will be presented Sunday, do something more than honor the “best” films. They give us a glimpse into ourselves. Our movies, especially those that strike a national nerve, as Oscar nominees often do, are an expression of the nation’s collective consciousness, providing what you might call an annual Oscar State of the Union. They tell us where we stand. And this year’s State of the Union seems consumed with one issue: guilt.
When you look at the nine Best Picture nominees, you discover that the majority are not only deeply ambivalent about the United States, but that they suggest we Americans aren’t all that comfortable with ourselves either. We doubt ourselves and our values — even those things we ostensibly celebrate. We feel conflicted. We are haunted by guilt, consumed by remorse.
This is most apparent is the Oscar favorite, 12 Years a Slave, which taps one of the deepest sources of national guilt — slavery. The film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), suffers the ritual humiliations, but these are dramatically heightened by the fact that he was a free man who has been enslaved and tortured, and that even by traditional American standards he is vastly superior to his tormentors. If he starts the film as a figure of dignity and resistance, he becomes a symbol of national shame as well.
It may be no accident in these times of vituperation and anger that the film most likely to take home the Oscar is the film that most reminds us of our cruelty and most directly addresses our atrophied conscience.
Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as the resourceful commander of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates, deals more obliquely with a similar issue, this time internationally. On its face, it is a gritty docu-thriller. But its subtext touches on the motives of the Somalis who wind up kidnapping Phillips. When Phillips questions the leader as to why he has taken him hostage, the man answers that he doesn’t live in America — meaning he doesn’t have options.
Suddenly the film assumes an additional dimension. It is, at some level, a film about global guilt, about the disparity between them and us, rather than a tale of conventional villainy.
The guilt is more personal in Philomena, which stars Judy Dench as a woman who, as a teenager, was forced by the Catholic Church to give up her illegitimate child and then tries to find him years later. Or in Dallas Buyers Club where a homophobe, played by Matthew McConaughey, has to revise his vision of the world when he finds himself afflicted by AIDS. Or in Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut adrift in space, though she has really been adrift in life after her child’s death robs her of meaning. In the film, she must come to terms with that loss, so that she can live again. The gravity of the title is the force of memory and reconciliation that brings her back, literally and figuratively, to earth after floating aimlessly in regret and guilt.
Then there is Oscar’s “money trilogy” (actually, a quadriology if you include Blue Jasimine, whose star, Cate Blanchett, is the Best Actress favorite): American Hustle, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street. All three films deal with American money lust. In addition, all three deal with the guilt that undergirds that lust after the Great Recession.
In America, we know that personal wealth is the primary measure of personal worth, but these films demonstrate that we don’t feel comfortable embracing that idea.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a financial Animal House starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a voracious stock broker who cheats and finagles his way to staggering wealth before becoming the victim of his own excess. Though the film’s director Martin Scorsese and its writer Terence Winter have been at pains to defend the film, somewhat disingenuously, as a cautionary tale rather than a celebratory one, they are correct in that it does question its hero’s path to fortune — if not the high spirits that fortune subsidizes. There is a hint of guilt not in having money, but in having to do devious things to get it.
American Hustle, starring Christian Bale and Amy Adams as a pair of schemers who also separate the greedy from their dough, is about a lot more than money lust, but like Wolf, it puts greed on display. Unlike Wolf, this film has a conscience, since Bale’s character feels guilt for betraying people he realizes don’t deserve to be conned. One might even say that the protagonists’ primary struggle is to redeem themselves so that they can expunge their guilt and live authentic lives of love and passion.
As for Nebraska, as unrelievedly grim as Hustle is exuberant, it stars Bruce Dern as an addled septuagenarian who mistakes a Publishers Clearing House-like mailing promising a million dollars for notification that he has won a million dollars. So he sets out with his son to collect his supposed winnings. Again, as in Wolf and Hustle, the film presents the American Dream of riches, only to eviscerate it, and as in those films, it conveys an ambivalence about those riches and guilt about believing in the balm of money.
It is not surprising that while most of these nominees deal with guilt, they also deal with a side effect (and here one can include Her): loneliness. In nearly all nine films, the characters desperately seek connection, something to rescue them from the dearth and despondency of their lives — something to redeem them from their guilt and make them whole.
That is Oscar’s State of the Union. It says there is an ache in the land — a national remorse. We feel it in ourselves. And this past year we saw it in our movies.
Neal Gabler is the author of “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” He’s working on a biography of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
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