The Oscars are coming! The Oscars are coming! Usually, I couldn’t care less about the Oscars. I love watching movies, but which one best fits today’s political or social agendas doesn’t concern me. I probably don’t agree with it, anyway. This year, though, is different. I’d like to say I’ve seen all of the nominees for Best Picture, but I’ve only seen three of them. And in any given year, I would vote for any one of those three, if given the chance.
We went to see American Sniper this weekend, and since my one handkerchief wasn’t a clean one, and I forgot to take extras, I had to grab a handful of napkins along with our drinks at the concession counter. My wife used every one of them. The movie was every bit as good as I’d heard. It broke my heart to see not only the trauma our men and women endure, but the suffering that so many people take for granted in their everyday lives.
The movie made me angry, too. I have yet to make a Facebook post, because it wouldn’t be appropriate for a public forum right now. Our service people leave home, spend long stretches of time constantly under tension most of us can’t imagine, and when a life or death decision has to be made in an instant, they have to worry more about public opinion and possible legal punishment than they do about living or dying. I could go on for a long time about the social and political aspects of the movie and the discussion it has created, but that’s not my intent here.
My point is that the story evoked a strong enough emotion in me that, in all honesty, my wife didn’t use all of those napkins. Others have been angry because they disagree with the movie’s premise. Few people, however, have been ambivalent, and that’s good story telling. What would I give to write a book that resulted in a national fistfight?
American Sniper is a great movie, but it doesn’t get my vote for Best Picture (for whatever that’s worth). War, with all of its attendant tragedy and suffering, is almost always going to trigger a visceral response. This movie did it better than most, but not enough to compete with what I think was the best movie last year.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is another nominee, and again, could get my vote in just about any other year. Yes, the narrator is a writer, so one might consider me biased, but that’s not the case, I promise. The movie moved so quickly and smoothly between comedy and drama that I was never sure if my tears were from laughter or grief. It has no political overtones, no social message, no cultural flagellation. It’s just a well written, perfectly cast, beautifully acted romp.
Much of the humor is subtle, most is droll, and some is so quick that a moment of inattention can be costly. So many of the movies put out today are slapstick, clumsy, crude, and just plain silly, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s nuanced thoughtfulness was a wonderful surprise. Of course, it would be hard to produce a bad movie with the cast that was employed. I watched the ending credits with a delicious sense of happy melancholy. It doesn’t get my Best Picture vote this year, though. It made me laugh, but it didn’t make me look in mirror. It didn’t show me who I am, or who I could be. It didn’t change me.
Whiplash is the third one my wife and I have seen and, you guessed it, it gets my vote. I reviewed it on this blog a couple of months ago, and I stand by what I said then, except for one thing. Initially, I thought it would be one of those great movies no one hears about, because only artistic folks would get it. I was wrong. Anyone who has ever put a goal or a purpose above themselves should get this movie.
I graduated from The Citadel, the best damn military school in the country. Our freshman year was brutal. Most didn’t make it through. Those that did cried themselves to sleep at least one night that year. While other college students slept in and partied, we walked to class single file in the gutter, sat at attention on the front three inches of our chairs at meals, and endured nine months of some of the most vicious, creative verbal abuse imaginable. In fact, I found myself sitting at attention in the theater when Terrence Fletcher started berating his lab band. Outside of the artistic venue, I recognized the dedication Miles Teller’s character had from my college experience.
Our questions were, “What will you give of yourself to wear the Band of Gold, to be a part of the Long Gray Line, to be a Citadel Man?” (Sorry, ladies, but that was the question way back then.) Whiplash asks, “What will you give to be great?” Some ask themselves what they will give to be a doctor or lawyer, a good spouse or parent, a soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman. Some wring their souls dry painting, drawing, writing, singing, sculpting, or expressing themselves some other way. Some give their all to teach. Whatever it might be, almost all of us ask ourselves sometime in our lives what we’re willing to give of ourselves to accomplish that one goal, to be great at something that makes us bigger or more complete. Those that don’t, it seems to me, have doomed themselves to a timid, miserable existence.
At some point, most of us surrender the pursuit of greatness as we realize that life happens anyway. Only a few are willing to trade family, friends, and security for a dream that probably won’t come true, despite the sacrifice and work. We find our contentment in other ways. But that spark is still in us, often buried so deep it’s forgotten, and that’s what Whiplash touches. Its magic is its ability to reach far enough into our psyches to breath on that spark and make it glow just a little. Just for a while.
Yes, I’m making a judgment based on incomplete information. I’ll watch the other nominees in the near future. Each one seems to be an excellent movie, probably worthy of its nomination. My prediction is that American Sniper will win because of its emotional and patriotic impact, or The Imitation Game or Selma will take the award for their social commentary. And that’s why I so rarely care about the Oscars. Give the award to the best movie, whichever one it is, because it is the best movie, not because it makes the most popular statement. That’s what the box office is for.