How Best Picture Reflects Who We Are and How ‘Life of Pi’ Could Run Away with It

By  · Published on January 25th, 2013

What does Best Picture say about who we are? On the one hand, nothing. It’s very easy to write the whole thing off as Hollywood congratulating itself, the height of cultural irrelevance. Plenty of critics write anti-Academy pieces every year, highlighting the limited scope of the nominees and the out-of-touch reputation of the voting membership. They aren’t necessarily wrong.

Yet the Oscars are part of a larger picture of American cinema and society, and they reflect it. It’s been said that the raucous comedy Tom Jones was just what we needed at the Oscars in early 1964, only a few months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Best Picture battle between Coming Home and The Deer Hunter was emblematic of the troubled legacy of the Vietnam War, which had come to an end only four years before. In recent years, the success of Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and The Artist seems to hint at globalization and the importance of the international market. (A victory for Life of Pi would continue that trend.)

So, what do we do with this year? If Lincoln wins, there will no doubt be plenty of writing around the connections between Honest Abe and President Obama. More than that, however, Steven Spielberg’s film is a work of profound faith in America and its institutions. In that respect it opens a dialog with the other films nominated for Best Picture, and gives us some insight into Oscar’s mood going into 2013.

Lincoln is a triumphant work. True, it in theory addresses the worst crime committed on the American people in our history. Yet it chooses not to directly address the horrors of slavery. It’s about governmental rather than social institutions, an ode to a politician whose legacy remains untarnished in the 21st century. By focusing on the House of Representatives and the eventual success of the 13th Amendment, Spielberg and Tony Kushner demonstrate a complex but solid faith in the American Republic. Lincoln wants us to feel good about our history.

Similarly, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty engage with the troubled history of the CIA. Their protagonists are independent-minded agents, determined to complete their mission in spite of institutional intransigence. In the end they both succeed with flying colors, nudging their institution on the right path with some good old-fashioned American oomph in the spirit of Lincoln’s bold politicking. Argo is the simpler of the films, concluding with a grand celebration of faith in the CIA and international cooperation.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, is much more ambivalent. Yet the discourse around it has often gotten it wrong, focusing on its supposed endorsement of torture. As Michael Moore so articulately wrote yesterday, the emphasis should be on the ethics rather than the efficacy of torture. Unfortunately the discussion has not come fully around to this point of view, and the result is the common perception that the film is a gung-ho right-wing fantasy.

Zero Dark Thirty, if viewed as a film that represents an unqualified great success of American history, joins Argo and Lincoln in encouraging faith and trust in governmental institutions. However, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were both assumed to be much bigger Oscar contenders than they turned out to be on nomination morning, missing out on Best Director spots. The fact that they lost out to Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that is nothing if not extremely skeptical of American government, turns this bland observation into a fascinating topic of discussion.

Benh Zeitlin’s wunderkind Sundance feature operates under a very different set of assumptions from its Hollywood competition. It practically declares metaphorical warfare on FEMA, portraying the federal aid to the demolished community of The Bathtub as a terrifying invasion of personal space. Hushpuppy is much better off away from the state and its misguided medical care, fiercely independent in a film that revels in its romanticization of both poverty and isolation. It is perhaps significant that prior winner Kathryn Bigelow focused on one of the high points in America’s last decade and was left without a nomination, while first-time filmmaker Zeitlin got in with a magical realist take on one of the most disastrous.

Les Misérables, of course, is given an impossibly bleak outlook on history by its source material. Yet Tom Hooper is more concerned with the emotion of this narrative rather than the politics, and there isn’t much contemporary resonance in the Bourgeois Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. Django Unchained, however, remains a fascinating counterpoint to Lincoln. Where Spielberg won’t represent either the trauma of slavery or the role African Americans played in its abolition, Quentin Tarantino dives right into the excesses of both. His revenge fantasy might be completely historically inaccurate and willfully messy where Lincoln is mannered and dedicated, but it harbors no illusions about the reliability of 19th century American institutions.

So who’s it going to be? Is the Academy in the mood to vote for a film that maintains faith in American institutions, or will it reward a much less sanguine perspective? At the moment, I’d argue neither.

Django Unchained and Les Misérables are both too messy to make it to the top. Beasts of the Southern Wild is just a bit too much of an outsider movie to make the cut. Argo has a shot, but I still think that lack of a Director nod is a sufficiently bad omen to ruin its chances. Ditto for Zero Dark Thirty. And while I think Lincoln is still close to the top, the fact that Argo has beaten it twice already is making me skeptical.

That leaves three films. Amour, which is brilliant and too foreign for Oscar, deals with love and death on such a stunningly universal level that even bringing it into this conversation about “faith in America” seems cheap. No, at this moment I think Best Picture will go to either Silver Linings Playbook or Life of Pi. Hear me out.

Silver Linings Playbook is the escape route out of any troubling debate about America, its culture and its institutions. It takes mental illness and turns it into an opportunity for meet cutes and romantic comedy hijinks. Illegal gambling addiction becomes the narrative justification of a screwball climax. David O. Russell takes the human weakness of his characters and throws it onto the dance floor rather than giving it space to breathe. The result is a film that offers a glorious and skin-deep departure from the real themes and issues at play in the other Best Picture nominees. Like Driving Miss Daisy or Shakespeare in Love, Silver Linings Playbook could very easily be the heartwarming fluff to swoop in and take the big prize.

Alternatively, however, there is Ang Lee. In the way that Silver Linings Playbook is almost willfully about nothing, Life of Pi wants to be about everything. Its protagonist, Pi Patel, begins his story amidst the deep legacies of not only colonialism in India but also three major world religions. By the time he gets on the ship with his family and their zoo animals, he has already laid a philosophical groundwork of greater breadth than one could probably find in most Best Picture nominees in history. Then Lee tosses him out of the boat and into a confrontation with the enormity of the ocean, the impossibility of survival, and the very nature of God. It isn’t about faith in institutions or even about faith in ourselves, but rather simply about Faith.

Now, there are many ways I could make the case that Life of Pi should and could win Best Picture. I could talk about its inevitable victory in many of the craft categories and how Lee could swoop in and take Best Director from Spielberg. I could talk about awards campaigning and Fox’s apparent determination to fight for the film. I could pretend that I’m some sort of soothsayer, I could do a ton of unnecessary awards-history math, or I could base it entirely on my own preference for the beauty and technical expertise that Lee corralled into this stunning work of 21st century movie-making. All of that seems dull, however.

My argument is this: the Best Picture race is almost never this competitive. In a year like this, anything can make a difference. Mood counts. Obama just got re-elected and there is a sense of great political relief in the hippie, liberal parts of the country (read: California). However, there is also more distrust of government than there has been in over a century and a lot of it is coming from older, white men (read: the Academy). This is not to say that their influence won’t be felt – Lincoln and Beasts got plenty of nominations after all, the support is clearly there. Yet in the end, we can only have one winner. I think these two impulses could cancel each other out, dampening the support for Best Picture contenders across the board. The beneficiary? The cynic in me wants to say Harvey Weinstein and Silver Linings Playbook. Yet if I’ve learned anything from Ang Lee this year, it’s to have a little faith.