War And Redemption Reign At The Academy Awards

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by Marc T. Newman [critic]

James Cameron will have to console himself with the over $2.5 billion in worldwide box office receipts that his film, Avatar, has raked in over the past few months (and more coming in daily). When it came time to hand out the Oscars at the end of the seemingly-eternal Academy Awards ceremony, Cameron’s neo-pagan/environmental vision was trounced in all the categories that focus on storytelling - though kudos are due to his technical crew who raised the bar on visual 3-D effects - though it didn’t take Tim Burton long to catch on as his opening weekend haul for Alice in Wonderland - another 3-D extravaganza - eclipsed that of Avatar.

Instead, stories of sacrifice and redemption ruled the Oscar’s main categories for screenplay, three of the four main acting awards, direction, and best animated feature and best picture.

Precious

Both Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and The Hurt Locker are intensely personal films. The first is the story of an urban African-American teenager saddled with just about every disadvantage one can imagine: poor, obese, nearly illiterate, living in a severely damaged family, raped and pregnant. Almost anyone would drown in despair, but a teacher and a social worker look beyond appearances and throw out a lifeline. Taking in less than ten percent of Avatar’s domestic box office gross, perhaps this win for best adapted screenplay, along with a best supporting actress win for Mo’Nique will encourage more people to see it.

Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges won a long-overdue award for Best Actor as Bad Blake, an alcoholic country singer who, when we meet him, hit bottom, smashed right through, and continued his descent. His interview with a music journalist Jean Craddock leads to love and what appears to be a standard redemption formula relationship, but the story refuses to go there. Crazy Heart lacks the witness of Tender Mercies - still the best film of this genre. Still, Bad’s realistic road toward sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous reads hope into an otherwise hopeless life.

The Blind Side

Sandra Bullock was genuinely shocked, I think, that she won Best Actress for her role as Leigh Anne Touhy - the real-life heroine of The Blind Side. The Academy has demonstrated over the years that they are not averse to awarding Oscars to actresses portraying outspoken Christians. Bullock joins Geraldine Page (1985 as Carrie Watts in A Trip to Bountiful), Susan Sarandon (1995 as Catholic nun, Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking), and Reese Witherspoon (2005 as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line) in this vein. You have to go back to 1983 to find an Oscar nod for Best Actor going to an explicitly Christian character (Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies), and before that to 1966 for Paul Scofield’s turn as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.

Bullock’s portrayal of Touhy, a wealthy, white Southern woman, who takes in a homeless African American teen out of compassion and Christian conviction, lit up the box office with receipts from people wanting to see a redemptive story. The Blind Side had the added allure of being true. Wiping away stereotypes, director John Lee Hancock explained that this was not a case of simple white guilt. “Leigh Anne Touhy did not put Michael Oher into that car because he was black,” he told me in an interview. “She put him in that car because he was cold.” Bullock won the Oscar because her performance was inspiring. I hope that it encourages Hollywood to make similar films.

Up

Always a long shot for Best Picture, Up still won for Best Animated Feature Film, beating out the dark Coraline, and the forced-feeling The Princess and the Frog. Pixar appears incapable of making a bad film, and Up continued their winning combination of a great story, outstanding voice talent, and incredible animation. Like The Blind Side, Up is a primarily a redemption story about an elderly man, Carl Fredrickson, who makes a perilous journey to find meaning in his life, when what he is looking for is actually standing on his front porch in a Junior Wilderness Explorer uniform. The little boy, Russell, needs to be rescued from a culture of absent fathers - and though curmudgeonly Carl would, at first glance, be no one’s pick for Father of the Year, the film reveals how unusual circumstances can shape us into the people we are meant to be. Pixar’s continuing track record makes me anxious to see their next offerings: Toy Story 3 and 1906.

The Hurt Locker

In his screenplay for The Hurt Locker, writer Mark Boal takes the viewer into the world of ordinance disposal units in Iraq - the guys who step right up to diffuse those improvised explosive devices that we all read about from the safety of our homes thousands of miles away. Kathryn Bigelow, who won this year’s Academy Award for Best Director, wisely skirts the debate over whether Iraq is the Good War or the Bad War. She simply shows us The War, and challenges us to appreciate the mental toughness and sheer bravado required to snuff the life out of a 500-pound bomb. The heroes we meet here are not throwbacks from the “gee whiz” and “as shucks, ma’am, t’wernt nothin’” war films of the 1940s and 50s, but real flesh and blood men you might meet on your flight as they head home from deployment. Boal and Bigelow’s film makes you want to say, “Thanks,” and that is what makes The Hurt Locker the Saving Private Ryan of this awards season and why it deserved its award for Best Picture.

Where is Avatar?

Maybe it was backlash against its Titanic box office haul, but I honestly think the Academy simply did its job. Avatar was an eye-popping film, so it justifiably won a fistful of technical awards. But with a nation at war, an economy in shambles, in the midst of political uncertainty, the Academy largely awarded films that celebrated the triumph of the human spirit, the healing power of love, and the heroism of those who risk all to save the lives of their comrades. As these films get the expected Oscar bump - if they are still in theaters - or find a second life on DVD, such stories invite reflection, response, and discussion. Christians have their own tales of triumph, healing, forgiveness, and heroism. With these themes brought to the fore by this year’s Academy Awards, we should find ways to share them. ExileStreet

copyright 2009 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of MovieMinistry.com and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to marc@movieministry.com

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