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Oscars: ‘True Power of the Human Spirit’ the Theme of Best Picture Nominees

At first glance, the choices for the Oscarsbest picture this year seem to represent vibrant diversity — not among the people who made them, as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith might quickly point out, but certainly in subject and style. It’s almost as if they were meant as a historic survey of American cinema: The immigrant drama (“Brooklyn”), the international thriller (“Bridge of Spies”), the detective story, albeit with journalists (“Spotlight”), effects-driven sci-fi (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), sci-fi posing as sci (“The Martian”).

On second glance, what we’re confronted with is a lineup of films about survival. “Room” certainly fits that bill, with Brie Larson’s captive character, Ma, trying to free herself and in the process save her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).

Likewise, “The Revenant,” with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass crawling his half-bear-eaten way back to whatever passed for civilization in the 1820s American wilderness. There have been times during the awards campaign, in fact, when it sounded as if the filmmakers themselves barely survived. “It was definitely a very ambitious movie,” says producer Mary Parent, “but unlike those who really existed in that time and place, we had all the benefits of the modern world.”

Take a third glance at the films, and something else is revealed.

Survival — and the choices made to survive — are often what movie drama is all about. But not all movie immortals are great because they were born that way; greatness has frequently been thrust upon them: Rick and Ilsa had to survive the Nazis (“Casablanca”). Will Kane had to survive a band of cutthroats (“High Noon”). The passengers of “Titanic” had to try and survive what insurance companies would call an act of God. There was not a lot of choice involved.

“‘The Revenant’ is about the true power of the human spirit, physically as well as emotionally.”
Mary parent, producer on ‘The Revenant’

The Best Pic of 2015 may well be a movie that ascribes to the concept that the principal characters — and by extension, their audience — are in control of their destinies: The dramatic tension involves circumstances into which the characters have entered willingly. (The strong exception being “Room,” which may be why that relatively understated drama made such an impression on Oscar voters.) None is more true of this than “The Big Short,” in which the dramatic tension is firmly rooted in Mammon — how much money some people will make, and how much money the country will lose, rather than how many people will survive a tornado in Kansas, or even the Holocaust.

Which is interesting, given how the current presidential campaign, and our ongoing public dialogue in general, seem to want to portray so much of life as being purely out of our control.

None of the best pic contenders would be seen as “escapist” in the conventional sense of the word — they aren’t hormonal comedies, or romantic comedies or bro-mances. “Mad Max” may be an f/x extravaganza, but it’s also the most political film of the bunch. The “Mad Max” masses can live without liberty, however woefully, and apparently have for some time. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) doesn’t have to be the liaison to the Soviets in “Bridge of Spies.” The Boston Globe editors in “Spotlight” could have casually swept the whole Catholic Church scandal under the rug (again). These stories are about heroes who choose the path they’re on.

Likewise, “The Martian.” No one forced Matt Damon’s Mark Watney to work for NASA, or fly to Mars. Ridley Scott, who may be feeling victimized right now by the directors’ branch of the Academy (he’s been nominated three times, but not this year ) ascribed the kind of heroism portrayed in his film as a consequence of character — “the right stuff,” as he put it.

“The truth was, Chuck Yeagar had broken his arm in a barroom brawl the night before they let him go up in the rocket,” Scott said in Toronto last fall. “He snapped a broom handle, used it as a lever to close the door and went through the sound barrier with a broken arm.” Similarly, the marooned Watney rises to the occasion because that’s who he is. “Mark thinks ‘how am I going to get out of here’ and he gets the idea of potatoes and seed, he says, ‘I can grow anything ….’” What provides the drama of “The Martian” is the intrinsically heroic personality.

“It might seem abstract, but homesickness is a real, physical, tangible thing that can rob you of vitality.”
John Crowley, director of “Brooklyn”

Likewise, “The Martian’s” seemingly polar opposite, “Brooklyn,” which is about a young woman’s immigration to American. There’s no potato famine in 1952 Ireland, no bears, no suicidal, paint-huffing followers of a messianic regime wanting her to carry their leader’s child (a la “Mad Max”). The English aren’t invading. In fact, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) might have lived a very comfortable if stilted existence on the Ould Sod, but as director John Crowley says, that’s exactly what “Brooklyn” is about — a struggle not for life, but soul.
Eilis leaves Ireland “because there was nothing going on” for her. But she suffers. “It might seem abstract, but homesickness is a real, physical, tangible thing that can rob you of vitality,” the director says from London. “In a way, by sending her back home” — Eilis returns to Ireland after living in Brooklyn — “you see the double-sidedness of immigration. It creates a split. You have to make an existential choice — once you leave home you can’t really go back, because you’re different.”

And when she does return, she sees a life she could have had. “She sees how reassuring it is. But she’s also more attractive now, smarter, she’s experienced things she hadn’t before she left. “You choose one and by doing so you jettison the other,” Crowley adds. “Is she going to be someone who gets over it? Or sinks into a life as a sentimental, backward-looking immigrant?”

“Brooklyn,” in its conflicts about destiny, identity and yearning, might seem a long, long way from the bloody violence and agonies of “The Revenant,” but as producer Parent says, that her film, too, is about “the true power of the human spirit, physically as well as spiritually and emotionally. Our ability to overcome.” The missions chosen by the inhabitants of this year’s best pic nominees might have been diplomatic, intergalactic, desperate, venal and/or journalistic. But they share that message.

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