Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar snub is a moral outrage.








For a general discussion of the Oscar nominations, go HERE.

In the broad scheme of things, the only Oscar snub that qualifies as an outrage is the omission of Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director.  Not because it's a bigger slight than snubbing Ben Affleck or Samuel L. Jackson or the like, but because her omission is clearly the result of the kind of smear campaign against the film that has made politics next-to-impossible for the last decade or so.  It's the same kind of baseless campaign that prevented Susan Rice from being nominated for Secretary of State, it's the same mud-slinging that caused Obama to (wrongly) dismiss Van Jones early in his term, thus providing the GOP their first scalp.  And to add insult to injury, Bigelow has been deemed wholly responsible by those who wrongly believe that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture, leaving screenwriter Mark Boal (who got a nomination) off the hook.  If this kind of stuff happens every time someone tries to make a challenging film for adults, then we can kiss such things goodbye from those who seek award recognition.  If this is a sign of things to come, where Hollywood becomes as frenzied and maddening as politics, then that is a troubling thing indeed.

Many who were too timid or wrongheaded to fully voice their opposition to torture back when it was first uncovered back in 2004 are now offering full-throated and fiery condemnations of Ms. Bigelow for showing recreations of torture and accusing her of endorsing the practice merely by refusing to explicitly condemn it.  She's been called a warmonger, an apologist, and yes, a Nazi.  If this is the kind of reaction we can expect when filmmakers attempt to make adult films with adult sensibilities that speak to its viewers at an adult level, then it's no wonder such films are so increasingly rare in mainstream cinema. The reason this matters beyond mere Oscar prognosticating is that it sends a clear signal to filmmakers who seek to work in the studio system that they shouldn't truly make adult films pitched at adults.  The core sin of Zero Dark Thirty is that it didn't have a supporting character on the sidelines talking about the immorality and/or impracticality of torture.  It didn't have a big scene where the major characters have a debate on torture.  Now such a scene would be implausible considering the film as it exists, yet the absence of this kind of condescending hand-holding has now opened the film up to accusations, from politicians, pundits, even religious leaders (I just received an email from Rabbi Arthur Waskow entitled Should Oscar go to pro-Nazi film "Triumph of the Will"?).

All because Bigelow and Boal didn't spoon-feed their opinions to the audience in a way that made for easy digestion.  They didn't have a fictionalized scene where a character explicitly explains to the audience how they got each piece of vital information over the eight years during which the film takes place.  They trusted the audience to make the connections.  It's the connection between the opening torture scene and the horrifying terrorist massacre that the torture fails to prevent.  It's the connection between the stopping of torture and use of trickery that elicits worthwhile information that eventually, eight years later and only after the discovery of information that had been in an old file all along , leads to Bin Laden's compound.  It's the connection that bribery elicits the key information late in the game rather than torture.  It's the very fact that the film's climactic raid is the least cathartic and least empowering moment of American violence on can imagine.  Those whining that the film endorses torture seem to miss the point that the film doesn't entirely endorse the execution of Osama Bin Laden, presenting it as perhaps a necessary evil but a vile, horrific, and brutish act of foreign aggression nonetheless.  One must remember that the film initially began back when Bin Laden was still alive and it was presumed that he'd never actually be caught.  It was initially a Moby Dick-esque story of futile obsession, and I'd argue the film still stays on that path even with the new ending. 

Bigelow and Boal could have pitched the film to the dumber members of the audience.  They could have had scenes where characters explicitly explained their own moral stances and/or the progression of information that is discovered over eight long and bloody years.  They chose instead to trust the audience and the mainstream media and publicity-hungry politicians have betrayed that trust.  Bigelow and Boal trusted our intelligence and the reaction to the picture has now insulted our intelligence.  It's really no different than the reaction to Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, where he was accused of committing the very sin he was criticizing because audiences and critics couldn't look past the short skirts.  It's really no different than the rather habitual writing-off of any number of popcorn entertainments because critics and pundits were unwilling to even acknowledge that mainstream studio fare might have some worthwhile ideas beneath the surface.  But this time it happened to a major Oscar contender that received glorious reviews.  This time it happened to a would-be prestige picture, and the resulting firestorm is far more severe than mere dismissal.  Congress wants to launch an investigation, Bigelow and Boal are being compared to Leni Riefenstahl, and one of the best films of 2012, one that dares to not only be critical of the various post-9/11 failures but also one of our alleged successes, is forever tainted by the now accepted notion that it endorses torture on a practical and moral level.

The damage is done and it is severe.  This is why we see so many would-be adult films that are pitched to the level of children.  This is why a film like the R-rated Gangster Squad feels like a kids' adventure that happens to contain graphic violence.  Because truly adult films don't hold our hands and explain everything to the audience.  And in today's 24-hour shock/outrage news cycle, there is no real chance for such a film.  In an era where showing off behavior is automatically seen as endorsing it, in a time where a rather conventional hero's journey like Django Unchained is considered 'brave' and/or 'courageous' purely because it happens to be about slavery, in an era where Spielberg's Lincoln has to fight off charges that it's view on race relations is simplistic (ignoring the very first scene, where Lincoln blows off a valid question of a black Union soldier), there is no room for subtly and nuance in today's entertainment discourse.  And that's the real moral outrage.  Bigelow will be fine.  The film remains untouched for those who love it.  But the damage has been done and the message is clear: Don't treat adults like adults or you will be pounced upon like screaming children.

Scott Mendelson                   

10 comments:

Brandon Peters said...

Its funny, as controversial as it was even then, A Clockwork Orange was still nominated for best picture in 1971

harveywilkinson said...

Whoa, Scott! WHOA! First of all, I'm not sure anything Oscar-related is truly worthy of "moral outrage." Sandusky and Penn State, Steubenville, yes. Oscar snubs? Not so much.

Secondly, most of your argument is completely undercut by the fact that ZERO DARK THIRTY was NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE!!! This is hardly Hollywood running in fear for the hills because someone dared to make an adult movie. The film hasn't even been widely released, it's been seen by virtually no one in the American moviegoing public, but there it is, being nominated for the industry's highest possible award. I can't remember the last time a film received a Best Picture nomination with just a few million dollars in domestic box office. ZDT and BEASTS get best picture nominations, Skyfall doesn't, it's hardly a strong case that the industry detests challenging pictures and prefers vanilla, mainstream fare.

Thirdly, the snub is for Bigelow, not the film, but cry not for Bigelow. She has a gold statue on her mantle, and directors like Ridley Scott and David Fincher and Spike Lee do not. It's hard to shed tears for her lack of nomination on this.

Fourthly, the Academy nominated 9 movies for best picture, but still only 5 for best director. By definition nearly half of the directors will be "snubbed." It's a a snub, but a mathematically-diluted snub to be sure.

Fifthly, the filmmakers spun on a dime and COMPLETELY reworked the entire film the moment bin Laden was killed. This project had been in development for years. They re-wrote the script in a matter of months and fast-tracked it. The killing of bin Laden and the methods by which he was found was already a politically and emotionally-charged issue, but the filmmakers embraced this and went ahead with a film, almost certainly in an intentional attempt to "capitalize" (financially and otherwise) on its timeliness and proximity to the actual events in question. Fine, I applaud them for their courage for tackling a hot potato, but at the same time, they can't have it both ways. They can't capitalize on its "timeliness" and its controversy and then get a pass when it ruffles feathers. Both Boal and Bigelow have evidenced their discomfort with this in interviews, when in certain times they claim the piece is heavily- and accurately-sourced and fact-based (why else shoot it in a verite-style?), other times they hide behind the "it's just a movie" line. It seems like even now they try to have it both ways.

Finally and sixthly, according to the film, torture produced a name. The name led to bin Laden. Torture worked. Period. That's the problem the chief critics have (including the CIA and members of Congress who are closest to the issue), not that the film is "pro torture" or it's just too darn challenging and subtle, but that it completely discards the central facts, something Bigelow and Boal have never really denied. So the thing none of the film's most vocal defenders seem to acknowledge is this: making a morally ambiguous, challenging film for thinking adults about the hunt for bin Laden (including unflinching depictions of torture) and making a film that doesn't distort key facts are not mutually exclusive endeavors. They could have done both, they SHOULD have done both, especially considering the film's subject matter: the American government torturing people in its citizen's names. That's the true moral outrage here, not that a very rich and acclaimed woman didn't get another trophy for her mantle.

You laud the filmmakers for making such a challenging and nuanced piece, but I argue they undercut their own seriousness with their "torture produced a name" depiction of events. The idea (and one closer to reality, by everything we know) that the American government was engaging in a widespread torture campaign that DIDN'T lead to bin Laden seems to be the much more challenging and troubling movie.

harveywilkinson said...

Sorry for posting a guest column! I actually really really liked the film. I just don't think they needed the "torture worked" component to make a nuanced and challenging film.

Jenelle Riley said...

Beautifully said. Will point to this every time someone asks why Hollywood doesn't make movies for adults anymore.

Freddie_deBoer said...

And we have yet another attack on people criticizing this film that doesn't even pretend to respond to their actual criticisms.


I'm glad your moral outrage is focused where it should be: in defense of a millionaire that was snubbed of the opportunity to be handed a golden trophy by another millionaire, and not, say, in defense of a Pakistani 4-year old killed from above by a robot.

Scott Mendelson said...

Ask and ye shall receive...
http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2012/02/remember-when-gop-tried-to-convince-us.html
http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2012/12/how-zero-dark-thirtys-unflinching.html

Miguel Plylar-Moore said...

Yeah seriously this is just silly...This is not the first (or last) or last time a Best Picture Nom went without a director...As far as SUCKER PUNCH!? Yeah people made those " it's decrying feminine steryotypes while taking part in exploiting females", yet it was usually followed by a lengthy discussion about how fucking horrible the movie was...and it is truly a terrible film....Look I don't mind being concerned about KBs snub in general...She should have been nominated...But to suggest that there is some political, Hollywood conspiracy to keep the film down is so preposterous I'm reading through your blog again to see if there was some elaborate joke being told...hmm.....nope, you're an idiot.

KXB said...

I find the real "outrage" to be Harvey Weinstein once again strong-arming his way to multiple nominations for a less-than-worthy film (guess which one); there's no credible way to explain how David O(verrated). Russell got the nod over Affleck/Bigelow otherwise; as for your speculation of the future of "adult" films that treat their audience like adults, the opening for ZDT seems to bode well for them- let's see if SLP does the same, assuming it EVER gets a wide release...

Michael Calia said...

Scott, great defense of the film, but I can't work up any moral outrage over Bigelow's directing snub. The film was nominated in several categories, and Bigelow was indeed nominated as one of the film's producers.

city said...

thanks for share...

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