Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Drew Trotter

The Movies and America

What the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture tell us about ourselves.


If Tertullian could ask, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?", surely this year we could ask, "What has Hollywood to do with Washington?" or, perhaps more subtly, "What has the Kodak Theatre to do with the White House?" In a year when the two most talked-about movies were an independent film that won no Academy Awards and garnered only three nominations, and a documentary that was a lock to win none, having no nominations, how much is it worth our while to look at the five Academy Award nominees for best picture, four of them, of course, losers? Add that none of the five nominees were even in the top ten last year in box-office receipts, and the question presses: "How much are these pictures really indicative of where we are now, and where we are likely to go, as a nation?"

As St. Paul might have put it, "Much in every way." Movies dominate our office conversation; our presidents quote them when describing foreign policy; our preachers regularly use them for crucial sermon illustrations. Movies are as significant an art form as we have in America today, and the art of a people is perhaps the best barometer of their character and concerns. In that light, Hollywood has the most significant artists working in America today, and while this presents a rabbit trail down which we could go—discussing whether the greatest film artists are found in independent film circles or in Hollywood—the greatest blend of thoughtful, influential artistry in America is generally to be found in the more mainstream films of Hollywood. If that is so, then Hollywood's self-selected movies may well be, in the long run, the most influential movies made in any one year. The five Academy Award nominees for Best Picture this past year—The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, and Sideways—certainly add up to a story about ourselves and the state of our souls that is worthy of our investigation.


In The Aviator, Martin Scorsese brings us a film about Howard Hughes, stretching (after a brief, but important, childhood scene) from c. 1928, when Hughes is struggling to make the film Hell's Angels, through the 1940s. This is the period when Hughes was a regular public figure, though it does not contain our most prominent cultural memory of Hughes. That distinction belongs to the sad individual who died, alone, massively rich but totally out of his mind, having lived most of the last 20 years of his life as a recluse in his suite on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas. Many details are known, and even more are conjectured, about Hughes' grotesque last days, but they all point to one thing: we do not remember the dashing figure of the 1930s and 1940s nearly so well, or so often, as we do the crazy hermit of 1976.

In The Aviator, Hughes is portrayed as living wildly successfully, at least according to macho American standards. He risks wildly, and amasses the world's largest fortune. He flies faster than any man had ever flown, crashing twice. He spends lavish amounts of money directing and producing movies, some of which are successful (one was the masterpiece Scarface), and some of which are huge duds. Along the way, he sleeps with many of the most alluring women in Hollywood, living for two years with Katharine Hepburn. In the midst of all this glamour, though, Hughes' phobias of people and bacteria are clearly presented; perhaps the most visually striking sequence in the film is one in which Hughes, played masterfully by Leonardo DiCaprio, locks himself in his screening room to watch films over and over, having food brought in, bottling his own bodily waste, all the while having his only conversations over the phone or through the door. Several milder scenes remind us of what we know to be Hughes' eventual mental and physical state.

The film ends at what seems to be the beginning of Hughes' long slide into madness, with him being spirited away from public view, caught in a fit of repetition of the same phrase, unable to control himself. The phrase? "The way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future." During this final sequence, the voiceover narration flashes back to the childhood Hughes, and we hear him say, "When I grow up, I'm gonna fly the fastest planes ever built, make the biggest movies ever, and be the richest man in the world." He achieves all this, Scorsese says, and where does it get him? The diminutive director, who once trained to be a Catholic priest, may as well have ended his film with a black tableau in white print: "And what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Mt. 16:26).

Scorsese has written that what attracted him to John Logan's screenplay was Logan's portrayal of Hughes as a man "who was both tragic and triumphant, whose brilliance was inseparable from his mania," and that "the most significant contribution [to the film] was from Howard Hughes, who lived a life as complex and extravagant, as tortured and obsessed, as rich and ultimately as mysterious as one can imagine." This assemblage of adjectives demonstrates how objective Scorsese is towards his character; it would be wrong to accuse him of judging Howard Hughes in the film.

Nevertheless, The Aviator comes across as a severe critique of American celebrity worship, sexual obsession, and rampant materialism. The end of The Aviator tells us clearly who we are, and where we are going. Hughes' passions were indeed the way of the future for America, as the last half-century demonstrated. They continue to be dominant aspirations for us as we move into the 21st century, and The Aviator warns us to give them up or suffer the consequences.


Finding Neverland presents a short period in the life of the playwright J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), best known for Peter Pan. The film explores Barrie's relationship with a widow and her three boys, who may or may not have had a strong influence on the creation of Peter Pan, but who in the film's portrayal virtually write it for him. A kind and sweet tale about death and maturity, Neverland opens with Barrie, tensely peeking from behind the curtains, watching the opening night of an immense flop. Undaunted, he goes out the next day to a London park to begin writing a new play; it's there that he encounters the Davies family. During a number of adventures with them, centering on Barrie's willingness to play with the boys, he gathers material for a fantasy that, at the end of the film, triumphs gloriously as his production of Peter Pan.

Framing the plot between these two plays demonstrates one of the main themes of the film: great art is produced by inspiration, suffering, and wild risk-taking. Barrie risks his own marriage—and, indeed ultimately loses his wife—through his involvement with the Davies family, even though there is no hint of sexual impropriety between Barrie and Mrs. Davies. In the end Barrie's wife leaves him because she cannot be his muse, and Sylvia Davies and her boys are.

Finding Neverland displays the Romantic ideal that life's greatest creations—and I use the word "creations" not just to refer to art, but to all life's results—are those which come from a focused imagination. If Barrie allows himself to be fettered by his wife, by the practical concerns of his producer, by what the catty, Victorian public will say about his relationship with the Davies family, he will never find Neverland. He will never produce the play that, as Peter Davies puts it, is "magical."

The movie does not make the standard contrast between dogged, detailed Apollonian work and wild, anarchic Dionysian "creation." Barrie still takes notes, cautioning Peter to write and write, and see what happens, rather than encouraging him only to play. He does, however, spend just as much of his time convincing Peter that a playful imagination is indispensable for living life. The closing scene, in which Barrie and Peter are sitting on a park bench discussing death, sums up the film's teaching about the role of imagination in living the good life. Thinking about his mother's death, Peter confides that he "thought she'd always be here." "So did I," answers Barrie. After a significant, reflective pause, he continues: "But she is here, Peter, because she's on every page of your imagination." Peter, ever the philosopher, asks, "Why did she have to die?" and Barrie, answers wisely, "I don't know, boy." He follows, though, with "But she went to Neverland and you can go there and visit her any time you like." Peter: "How?" Barrie: "By believing, Peter, just believe."

Here the film loses its grip, as the two characters become more and more transparent in a white fade-out, suggesting that if one simply believes hard enough, one can create a reality that does not exist. However, this should not keep us from noticing, and applauding, two things that are powerfully portrayed throughout the movie. First, Neverland presents a balanced view of the importance of "play" in the living—dare we say the "creating"—of life, and the practicality of realizing that some things are beyond our control. Blinding ourselves to pain and suffering by pretending those things do not exist, does not create life but destroys it. Second, Neverland calls us to affirm the imagination—to acknowledge it, yes, but more to train it, and listen to it, as we face the difficulties we face. This can be done only by hard work and openness, and art shows us best the way to both.


Million Dollar Baby, which won the Oscar for best picture and several more awards along with it, may be Clint Eastwood's finest film. Eastwood, already a multiple Oscar winner for Unforgiven (1992), blends writing, music, cinematography, and acting in the superbly confident manner of Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Million Dollar Baby film tells the story of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman) as they seek to lift Maggie, already in the later years of her potential boxing life, from flat-footed puncher to world-class champion.

The plot twist at the end of the film has provoked controversy. (If you've somehow missed the debate and want to see the film without being primed by it, skip down a few paragraphs.) And the criticism hasn't come only from advocates of the disabled and opponents of euthanasia more generally. As one critic noted, the advertising for the film implied that Baby was going to be a feminist Rocky; instead viewers got a downbeat character study, radically exploring a social issue that has no feminist angle at all. Some viewers complained that they were suckered in to what they thought was a "boxing film," only to find themselves in a story that moved implacably to an argument for mercy killing.

It's true that, despite the way the film was marketed, Million Dollar Baby is not really a boxing picture. Sure, Maggie's desire to box and to be a champion; her persistent, elegantly humorous, but touching pursuit of Frankie to train her, since he's the best; the fight footage of her rise to the top; the role "Scrap" plays in engineering and managing the teaming of Frankie and Maggie—all these make up a good bit of the film. But even during that long, slow rise of the action in the second act of the movie, we see much more than Maggie's desire to become a champion and Frankie's desire to train one.

Indeed, anyone who does not see the end coming is not watching very closely. Frankie demonstrates a guilt that drives him to pray and go to church regularly—but also to be a pain in the neck when he does. This guilt, and Maggie's longing for her lost father and the family she has never had, surface in the early frames of the film, and are regularly brought to the forefront throughout. The two find their hopes met in each other, and the real tension in the film revolves around whether that hope will be realized—and, if it is, whether it will sustain them. Even the sad jazz guitar music, which makes up the majority of the score, and the extraordinary low-key lighting, the best in a color picture in a great while, support the tragic element in the film.

Eastwood has become the master of the realistic American tragedy. Only Sam Mendes' American Beauty can, in recent years, rival his films for the simplicity, the nobility, and the beauty with which they express the sadness that attends the human condition. The complexity of the fallenness of man, and the decisions with which that complexity confronts us, are both heart-rending and terrifying; one cannot leave the theater without experiencing, as much as a film can mimic real life, the depth of the moral imperfection of the species.

Eastwood, when confronted with the accusation that the film promotes mercy killing, has stated publicly that he just wanted to tell a good story, and that he is not really teaching a moral directly in Million Dollar Baby. It is difficult to believe, though, that audience members are not being encouraged to think very sympathetically of Frankie and the choice he makes. A character's ability to make us get inside his shoes, and feel that he is real, is exactly what good filmmaking is all about. Anything that character does is thus a paradigm for us to consider, and the more attractive the character is, the more we will be drawn to agree with his actions. To look at it another way, nothing in the film remotely encourages the viewer to decide to continue life in the circumstances presented at the end of Baby; everything promotes the view that it is legitimate to take life when it's "not worth living."

A relentlessly hopeless view that we have no one else to help us, that we are trapped in this vale of tears, powerless and alone, is inescapable in Baby. At the end, Eddie says he never saw Frankie again, but that he guessed he was "probably somewhere between nowhere and good-bye." We see Frankie sitting in the diner that he had hoped he could buy some day, drinking his coffee and eating his lemon pie. No hope is coming, and none is expected. Frankie is shattered, and that is the end of it, as it is of the film.

This bleak conclusion is bad enough, but what is worse is that Eastwood makes a strong point of portraying the church as actually having an answer for Frankie's dilemma—but having none of the grace to help him understand it, implement it, or transfer it to Maggie. The priest, a prominent minor character in the movie, is a stereotype of the unfeeling, doctrinally correct, smiley-faced jerk that too many people outside the church project onto the priesthood. The church—and with it Christianity, and ultimately, Christ—doesn't understand, doesn't want to understand, and actively refuses to understand, Frankie and his dilemma. It is one of the starkest condemnations of the irrelevance of the church in films of recent memory, and it hurts to see it. Needless to say, Eastwood misses badly here—portraying not simply the irrelevance but the active malevolence of the church seems to be a pattern in his recent films—but it is useful to remember that this is how a wide swath of Americans see Christians.


Ray is the Ray Charles biopic, with a narrative arc all the way from his upbringing as the son of a sharecropper and washer-woman in rural Florida to the state legislature of Georgia making "Georgia on My Mind" the official state song. All the talk about Ray is about the extraordinary performance it contains by Jamie Foxx, a performance that garnered him the Best Actor award at just about every awards presentation this year, including the Oscars.

But Ray is also a triumph of filmmaking expertise. Taylor Hackford has taken a long, complicated life and boiled it down to less than two and a half hours, yet he never loses the thread of Charles' love for music, his genius in blending styles and thereby creating new ones, and his determination to live as he pleases without breaking the rules his angelic mother set out for him. Ray does not sugarcoat Charles' life, portraying him as a drug addict, a shameless womanizer, at times a cut-throat businessman, even as it celebrates the musical genius that he certainly possessed.

If one positive value comes to the fore consistently in Ray, it is that of persistence in the face of overwhelming odds. Charles triumphs over racism, misunderstanding, and, of course, his own blindness by sheer discipline and hard work. This theme comes through in his ability, for so much of his life, to keep his drug habit isolated from his work. Similarly, while he often gives in to sexual indulgence on the road, he desperately seeks to maintain his life at home with his wife. And he finally triumphs by defeating the drug habit and by staying with his wife to the end.

Surely the life of Ray Charles is parabolic of the proclivity of Americans to believe that, if we only pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, we can triumph over any obstacle. We have a deeper faith in ourselves and our ability to solve problems than perhaps any people ever known, and it has never been stronger than it is today. As Christians we can applaud the "works" side of this success story; effort is required of us if we expect to accomplish anything in life. And to this extent we can confidently use Ray as a guide for facing adversity. But the philosophy of the film is basically humanistic, encouraged by each mini-drama in the life of Ray Charles, where he is never shown praying, and where even the Christianity of his wife is most evident in a conversation just after she has slept with him as a girl. This is a cancerous view of life, strong and destructive in our country today, and working actively against the gospel that declares us all incapable of solving our problems apart from the grace of God. Caveat emptor, Christian.


Sideways, the latest black comedy by writer-director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), revolves around a trip in which Miles Raymond, wine connoisseur, high school English teacher, and author of a 700-page novel that no one will publish, takes Jack, his friend but polar opposite, on a tour of the wine country near Santa Barbara, as a present before Jack gets married. Miles wants to spend time together, try a few wines, eat a few good meals and play some golf. Jack, even on the verge of marriage, has only one thing on his mind: sex with as many girls as often as he can find it. The two clash throughout the movie, and comedy is never far from the surface, as the men get in and out of one scrape after another, having alternately poignant and hilarious conversations along the way.

Sideways is about losers, and how they make their way in the world, and the movie gives us one of the most well-drawn losers ever to grace American film. Played flawlessly by the frumpy Paul Giamatti (his lack of a nomination was the most glaring misjudgment of these Academy Awards), Miles is portrayed as lazy, deceitful, and—in one of the hardest scenes in the film to watch—thieving. (He tells his mother he doesn't need any money, which is true enough, but only because he has just gone upstairs and stolen a thousand dollars from the stash of bills in her dresser drawer.) And yet even with his egregious flaws, the film encourages us to hope that he will win out in the end, and that either his novel will get published (it doesn't), his golf will be fun (it isn't), or, especially, his love life will be straightened out (at the end of the film we don't know whether it is or not).

Some Christians will be upset by the raw nature of much of the visual comedy in Sideways. Sexual intercourse forms the center of most of the humor in the film. More important, Sideways, for the Christian, is a sad film just because it is so uncompromising in its view of the limits of human hope. As we think of Miles, Jack, Maya, and Stephanie and their narrow aspirations, the Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?" comes to mind. As if in answer to that song's question, Alexander Payne says, "Yes, and you better get used to it; you can even find it funny, if you're sophisticated enough."


Perhaps in reaction to the continued advance of fantasy films—and especially remembering last year's dominance of the Academy Awards by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—all five of these movies share a realistic bent. Three are about real historical figures, and the other two portray characters that are perhaps more realistically represented than are either J. M. Barrie or Howard Hughes in Finding Neverland and The Aviator. With all the importance we should give to the success of Shrek II and Spiderman II last summer, Americans still want to see movies that speak to their ordinary hopes and dreams, their foibles and troubles. This signals a country willing to examine itself.

And the fruit of such self-examination? In these movies it is pretty bitter. All five of the nominated films are depressing, three of them relentlessly so. Even Finding Neverland and Ray, the most hopeful of the five, are more exhausting than empowering, and not one of the lot presents a redemption that seems to triumph in any way. Several films that had been heralded as Best Picture candidates—and surely received some votes, but failed to make the cut—were much more redemptive and optimistic. The superb Hotel Rwanda, for example, depicts the most horrible realism about human sin of any of the films, yet in such a way that one is buoyed by the heroic acts of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saves the lives of hundreds of Tutsi refugees during the Hutu massacres of the 1980s. Nevertheless, apart from a few deserving individual nominations for actors, neither the film nor its director was nominated.

A happy ending is not a prerequisite for movies that Christians can and should affirm. But when five films are nominated for the highest award a movie can receive in American pop culture, and all five demonstrate a view of life that can only be called futile, it is not wrong to weep. As Christians, we are called to engage our culture with the love and truth we believe God has revealed in what we call the gospel, the good news of the redemption offered in his Son, Jesus Christ. To do this, God calls us to learn from, and care for, the world around us, seeking to understand our neighbors and their cries for meaning and purpose in what is to them a shockingly chaotic world. If anything, the five nominees for Best Picture this year confirm that those cries continue loud and clear.

Drew Trotter is president of the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virgina.

Most ReadMost Shared