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Oscars 2011: How the year's top films reflect the times

Many of this year's top movies portray dark themes or flawed characters. Why one culture watcher says they mirror this moment in history.

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I don't think I am giving anything away when I say that Ward wins the title at film's end. But the sense of exhilaration is muted. It is less a title he has won than a familial truce. In effect, the message of "The Fighter" isn't about guts and glory. It is about how difficult it is to balance the professional and personal, about how many claims are made on our lives, and about how emotionally demanding success can be, not how liberating it is. In short, it is a film of its time, just as "Rocky" was.

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Similarly, there is considerable distance between Henry Hathaway's "True Grit," from 1969, a Western that starred the virtuous icon John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role as a cantankerous marshal who helps a young girl hunt down her father's murderer, and the Coen Brothers' contemporary version starring Jeff Bridges. Wayne's Rooster Cogburn is a big, ornery galoot who hides his sentimentality under a carapace of macho bluster, and Wayne won his Oscar basically because Academy members thought he was playing against type, spoofing himself. The fact is that he was playing exactly to type with the added comical conceit of his seeming to be something of a rapscallion – a conceit that the film exposes by its end.

The Coens' version is, if anything, much funnier than Hathaway's, in part because of how outsized the characters' pomposity is and how offhanded their cruelty is. But if Bridges's Rooster is full of comic bluster, which he uses to advantage, he is also a hardened, vicious man – a frontier realist who isn't hiding sentimentality, like Wayne's Rooster, but is devoid of it. In the original, when an outlaw is wounded by a compatriot, Rooster lets him gently expire. In the remake, Rooster coldly puts him out of his misery by firing a bullet in his head.

That violence notwithstanding, columnist Frank Rich in The New York Times tied the movie's huge box office success to how closely it hews to the original, especially when it comes to values. The first film was one of those movies that asserted honor when, with Vietnam raging, American honor was under siege. As Mr. Rich sees it, the remake asserts honor when, with Wall Street having collapsed, our honor is also in question. In Rich's analysis, people want and need this reassurance now, and they are finding it in Bridges's Rooster.

But this seems to me a misreading of the new movie. Though it is remarkably faithful to the original in its plot, it diverges in tone and attitude. In Wayne's version, honor is assumed. That's just who John Wayne is, even if he is playing a drunken marshal. In the Coens', there is no such assumption. Their Rooster is a mercenary. Killing means nothing to him – he does it with dispatch – but then it doesn't mean much to the young girl who hires him, either. Underneath the laughs and posturing, there is a wintry soul frozen by life. The original movie turns mushy. The Coens' is violent and cynical and, in the final analysis, wistful because in the film's coda, a scene the original doesn't have, we discover that Rooster and the girl have remained hard and lonely for the rest of their lives. This is America not just in the age of doubt; it is an America tough and annealed.


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