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.

Relativity Media/John Kehe/Staff
Jesse Eisenberg portrayed Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg in 'The Social Network,' one of this year's nominees for Best Picture. Mr. Eisenberg's character comes off as something of an antihero.

The protagonists of the nominees for the best picture Oscar this year are, as in most years, a fairly diverse bunch. They range from an obsessive ballet dancer to a prizefighter; a stately king to a paunchy, one-eyed marshal; a reckless young adventurer to a group of toys. As in most years, too, despite their diversity, these folks generally share one narrative similarity: a triumph at film's end. That is pretty much standard Hollywood issue. Filmmakers usually want us to sail out of the theater on a high note.

Despite the reach for that feel-good denouement, there is nevertheless something else in this year's crop of both Oscar nominees and movies generally that one doesn't typically associate with American films: a sense of malaise that borders on fatigue. There may be triumph here, as usual, but there is no triumphalism. In "The King's Speech," the most traditional of the nominees, we see King George VI's personal victory in rousing his people at the outbreak of World War II, but we don't see how he continues to rally his subjects to a larger victory.

In "The Fighter," we see Micky Ward winning the junior welterweight title, but we don't see his later three epic, brutal battles against Arturo Gatti that cemented his legacy. In "The Social Network," we see Mark Zuckerberg creating his Facebook empire, but we are deprived of witnessing any joy at his doing so. In "Inception," we aren't even certain whether there is a triumph since we can't be certain what is real.

These are dark times in which we live, and the conventional wisdom about Hollywood's response to national cataclysm is that it bucks up spirits and provides therapeutic escape. Exhibit A has always been the screwball comedies of the Great Depression that allowed Americans to laugh their troubles away in the theater.

But that is only a part of the story. One can cite dozens of other films from the Depression that reinforced the sense of doom. In fact, there may be no more Kafkaesque movie in American history than "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" – no film with a greater sense of hopelessness. Far from escapism, American films have often reflected bleakness, and for anyone wanting more refutations of the escapist theory, there are the dark, paranoid films of the postwar period that came to be known as "film noir," literally "black film," that captured the anxieties of the impending nuclear age rather than calmed them; the violent, cynical movies of the Vietnam/Watergate era – from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Chinatown" to "Nashville" – that spoke to a new national pessimism rather than allayed it; and even the savage anomie of "The Dark Knight" that seemed to erupt from a feeling of national aimlessness triggered by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hollywood has often been divided this way – between diverting us from reality and reflecting that reality, between giving us vicarious relief and plunging us more deeply into an emotional morass. Indeed, one of the longest running debates about our movies is whether they are mirrors or dreams.

Of course, the answer is that some are mirrors and some are dreams, and a few even manage to be both, the particular tenor of the country notwithstanding. But there may be a more interesting and complex division within Hollywood – not between mirrors and dreams but between movies that exude confidence about the American enterprise and those that express doubt. Almost all our movies gravitate to one of these poles – faith held and faith lost.

Many of the best films of the past year congregate around the lost pole, not necessarily because pessimism is more serious and artistic than optimism but because good films tend to resonate off the culture, and many of these movies were put into the Hollywood pipeline when it was obvious that the economic gloom wasn't going to lift soon.

Yet there seems to be something more that is influencing the darkness on the Big Screen this time around than grim unemployment numbers and record housing foreclosures. It may be a deeper sense of discontent. Even in the depths of the Depression, most Americans felt that happy days would be here again – eventually. This was still America, after all: the greatest country in the world. Now that sort of confidence has been shaken. It is much harder to believe in American exceptionalism when the country has been riven by political conflict and paralysis – harder still when China seems to be the ascendant power and America a descending one. There is a sense that we are at the end of our "empire."

Our movies may also be affected by the role that the Internet is now playing in disuniting the country and facilitating its splintering along all sorts of lines: political, geographical, religious, etc. While America has hardly ever been entirely united, the Internet can amplify even the smallest divisions by giving voice to discontents that probably wouldn't otherwise coalesce. We often feel less like a nation and more like a collection of folks venting. Our movies purvey this lack of community.

Then, too, Hollywood may have its own grievances to sound. The film industry, a notoriously liberal community, had rallied around the Obama candidacy assuming that the president would bolster the country with a Rooseveltian intrepidness. Of course that hasn't happened the way many people would have liked, and what we may be seeing in our films is Hollywood's disillusionment with the president and the country. Indeed, there may be few greater disappointments than the disappointment among people who have lived within and promulgated the idea that American heroism can conquer anything, as Hollywood has. Moreover, the industry itself has been hit hard by the economic downturn: smaller audiences, shrinking profits, fewer movies. One Hollywood veteran told me that business has never been worse.

Its own mood is sullen.

So a pall has settled over much of Hollywood – not only over overtly political films like Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel or "The Company Men," but over other genres that seem stubbornly apolitical. The most acclaimed romance of the year was "Blue Valentine," which tells us how arduous and even impossible love is. One of the most acclaimed domestic dramas was "Rabbit Hole" about a couple who try to survive after losing a child. The two most celebrated independent movies of the year, both Oscar best picture nominees, are "Winter's Bone," about a teenage girl in search of her dope-selling father who abandoned the family, and "The Kids Are All Right," in which a lesbian couple fights to secure their family against the incursions of their children's biological father. Even the year's biggest box-office blockbusters – from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" to "Inception" – were tinged with sadness.

But one can really see the distance between our traditional films of faith and today's films of uncertainty by comparing ones of the same genre, then and now, and noting how the elements have been reconfigured for our times. "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg as the Lowell, Mass., boxer Micky Ward, sounds formulaic. He is a down-on-his-luck, working-class, last-chance pug who has will and courage and a bit of boxing skill. And he manages to parlay these into a crack at the championship. Another "Rocky."

Except that "Rocky" was a post-Watergate movie when the country was working strenuously to restore its faith in government, Washington, even American idealism itself. It was about resolve, hope, dreams, and inspiration. Its message was that anyone who really wants to make it, can. "The Fighter" has no such platitudes to dispense. It is less about individual strength of character than about need, more about tiptoeing one's way through a personal minefield than about bulling one's way to the title. Unlike Rocky Balboa, Micky Ward is not caught in a slough of despair from which he has to free himself. He is trapped in a web of obligation – to his tart mother who manages him; to his new girlfriend who thinks he has to disentangle himself from his family; and most of all to his spindly, drug-addled half brother who taught Micky how to box but who now seems to stand athwart his dreams.

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.

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.

"The Social Network," which early on was the favorite to win this year's best-picture Oscar, is ostensibly the story of how Harvard boy genius Mark Zuckerberg founded the Facebook site – on the backs of his closest friend and several of his collaborators. The film's Zuckerberg is brilliant, prickly, cagey, arrogant, opportunistic, and driven. He brings to mind the equally brilliant and arrogant mathematician, John Forbes Nash Jr., the protagonist of an earlier Oscar winner, "A Beautiful Mind." Both Zuckerberg and Nash see the world differently from most other people and lord that over them. They are both men mesmerized by their own visions.

But if the films' protagonists are similar, "A Beautiful Mind," which was produced in the late Clinton years, is markedly different in its message. It uses Nash's paranoia to show how closely madness interfaces with genius and how genius interfaces with isolation. Nash's great fear is that if his demons are tamed, he will lose the very imagination that makes him who he is. Still, the film allows Nash an exit strategy – through love, understanding, and medication. It ends victoriously with Nash receiving his Nobel Prize for economics and ignoring the phantoms that still attempt to haunt him.

"The Social Network" presents Zuckerberg not so much as lost in his genius and isolated by it as he is lost in his ambition and isolated by that. Nash is sympathetic. He is a victim of an illness over which he has no control. Zuckerberg is practically a villain – a perpetrator of something over which he has complete control. He seems to justify his mania as payback against the one person who called his bluff: the girlfriend who jilted him. Nash is a product of his era – a flawed man who finally wins. Zuckerberg is a product of his era – a flawed young man who wins success but loses his soul.

One could go on through most of the other Oscar contenders, including the surprisingly sober "Toy Story 3," and find the same elements: the darker hue, the sense of forbearance rather than joy, the compromised heroism, the general enervation. One would also find a hardness of spirit in most of the protagonists, a difficulty or outright inability to make social adjustments, and a focus on one's own needs rather than on larger social needs.

Above all, one finds a sense of entrapment. Like the country itself, almost everyone in these films is caught in a vise – of family, duty, ambition, money, perfectionism, personal exigency, and, in one case, a giant boulder in a ravine. Even the King of England is trapped by the need to inspire his people. In years past, in those films that celebrate American faith, the heroes usually break free or break through. They let us exult in a way out. These films are different. No one really escapes – not the characters and not the audience. Indeed, far from escapism, these movies provide what one might call "trapism." Nothing is easy anymore. The thrill is gone.

It is a sobering image for a sobering time. But heading into Oscar season, this is the mirror that Hollywood holds up to us, a mirror of agony and anguish, even as we long for the dreams that may someday release us.

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, is an author, cultural historian, and film critic.

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