Which isn’t to say that they’re all great. Or even, in some cases, good.
This group might not suffer from the stodgy grandeur that “political” Oscar-bait movies often cloak themselves in (hello, “The Ides of March”), but they have plenty of their own flaws on display. Even the best of them illuminate how difficult it is to simultaneously pull off both trenchant social critique and emotionally satisfying storytelling.
Historical dramas like “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” stumble over genre tropes that blunt their impact. “Nomadland,” adapted from journalist Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction 2017 book about mostly retirement-age American transients, is the runaway Best Picture favorite, but suffers from a narrative indecisiveness that many critics have mistaken for profundity. “Promising Young Woman” is heavy-handed, to say the least, in its commentary, the textbook definition of style over substance.
As flawed as some of the films in the group are, however, they’re all at the very least compelling in some way, which can’t always be said of the Academy’s choices. With this year’s Oscar slate, the Academy has done an impressive job of showcasing the diversity — across every dimension, from style to demographic — of modern cinema (as well as, of course, burnishing its own bruised social credentials). They’ve also unintentionally pulled back the curtain on just how difficult it is to make great art that speaks to both the issues facing America and the world today, as well as the viewer’s aesthetic eye and emotional heart.
Filmmakers throughout history have, occasionally, struck a perfect balance when it comes to the tricky alchemy that great political art requires. Best Picture nominees (some of them winners) like “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “M*A*S*H,” “All the President’s Men,” “Network” and “The Insider,” among others, dealt with political and social issues to great narrative success; they’re remembered as signposts in American pop culture for the statements they made about the liberal international order, or race relations, or the media’s role in speaking truth to power.
Two of this year’s Best Picture nominees follow closely in such films’ footsteps, analyzing American society through discrete historical incidents: Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” both suffers and benefits in turn from the “West Wing” auteur Sorkin’s artistic tics: witty, hyper-verbal sparring between its characters, a keen eye for historical detail, and a square-jawed, pre-Watergate liberal idealism. It adopts the well-worn trappings of the courtroom drama to convey the political tensions of the 1960s New Left, as rabble-rousers including Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden are prosecuted for their roles in inciting a riot outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Along with King’s film and other recent critical smash-hit historical dramas (“Dunkirk,” “The Post,” “Selma,” Netflix’s “The Crown,” etc.), it fits comfortably into a genre that might be called Wikipedia Theatre: shoebox history lessons, frequently peppered with archival footage that makes their ripped-from-yesterday’s-headlines narratives all the more immersive.
Sorkin’s film is charming in its sensibility as a talky, middle-brow courtroom drama — something now all too infrequent in an era dominated by either Marvel blockbusters or buzzy indie features. But it’s overly wedded to its historical minutiae, aimlessly meandering down narrative cul-de-sacs (like one featuring a cameo from Michael Keaton as LBJ’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark) that distract from any current-day resonance it might have. The film ultimately succumbs to Sorkin’s crowd-pleasing instincts; as its end titles roll, describing the various, seemingly contradictory paths each of the defendants’ lives took post-’60s, one is left with the unshakable impression that a film about those events would be infinitely more compelling to watch — and that it would say far more about the complex motivations behind personal activism.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” suffers equally from a misplaced narrative focus. It’s a textbook undercover-cop drama that doubles as a portrait of Bill O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers and fed information to law enforcement agents that led to their assassination of Fred Hampton. King uses O’Neal’s arc, masterfully portrayed by the “Atlanta” and “Sorry to Bother You” actor Lakeith Stanfield, to depict the complicated relationship between Black Americans and a state that alternately offers them protection and brutal violence. He competes for screen time with fellow Best Supporting Actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya, whose alternately fiery and vulnerable portrayal of Hampton never quite takes flight amid the film’s narrative constraints. The end result is dramatically satisfying, but leaves viewers with a naggingly incomplete portrait of both men and their complex motivations.
Awards frontrunner “Nomadland,” on the other hand, is decidedly not of the Wikipedia Theatre. Director Chloe Zhao spins a tale about a widow who leaves her home in the real-life disincorporated town of Empire, Nevada to pursue a transient lifestyle, parking her van in mobile home camps and gas station parking lots while working a procession of odd jobs at Amazon fulfillment factories and processing plants. The film has been lauded, not without reason, as an all-too-rare portrait of the insecure and unglamorous work conditions many older Americans face today.
But a growing critical backlash, largely based on accusations that it treats the gig economy with kid gloves, shows how hard it is to pull off even implicit commentary without stepping in it in somebody’s eyes. (The film is also baggy and aimless, wasting a great Frances McDormand performance on a narrative that punts on depicting any realistic danger in favor of a dreamy visual feast reminiscent, although not quite enough, of the visual auteur Terrence Malick.)
In a similar vein is Darius Marder’s scripted directorial debut “Sound of Metal,” in which Riz Ahmed gives a tour-de-force performance as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. Ahmed’s protagonist finds solace in a vividly rendered rural deaf community that recalls the robust and diverse subculture portrayed in “Nomadland.” But the film isn’t without its own issues, treating its protagonist’s deeply complex decision to pursue state-of-the-art hearing implants with a glib judgment that would benefit from the care and focus apparent in the film’s astonishing sound design.
Any of the sins inherent to “Nomadland” and “Sound of Metal” when it comes to their diffident social critique can be forgiven, however, when one considers “Promising Young Woman.” Directed by the British actress Emerald Fennell, it’s a campy revenge thriller about a woman who ensnares and shames predatory men. Its arch, Instagram-inspired visual aesthetic and black humor position it as a modern successor to cult classics like “Heathers” or “Jawbreaker,” but its painfully didactic, sock-puppet dialogue leaves the film feeling closer to your average teen soap on the CW. More than its more overtly political fellow nominees, “Promising Young Woman” is a cautionary tale about putting self-conscious, Twitter-ready agitprop into the mouths of characters that are, ostensibly, human beings.
Out of the eight nominees, the film that most successfully threads the needle between aesthetic success and social resonance touches lightly on both. “Minari” is a semi-autobiographical tale from the director Lee Isaac Chung about a family of Korean immigrants that moves from California to Arkansas in the early 1980s, to pursue its patriarch’s dream of a self-sufficient farm life.
It’s told through the eyes of the family’s young son (and authorial stand-in) as he navigates the eccentricities and prejudices of the Reagan-era South, his family’s domestic squabbles, and the unexpected integration of his grandmother into the family. The film is astonishingly moving. Softly, it speaks volumes about the American dream of self-determination, the immigrant experience, and the role of the family unit in society, all by operating, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in his review, “at the true scale of life” — which is to say, a smaller one.
For that, like many other such films in Oscar history, “Minari” is unlikely to be rewarded with Best Picture — especially when compared with the aesthetic sweep of “Nomadland,” or the bold historical sign-planting of “Judas and the Black Messiah.” But its narrow focus opens up vistas of human experience that more on-its-face “ambitious” fare can channel only infrequently, being beholden to either historical detail or aesthetic posture. “Minari” is a vibrant and powerful reminder that the power of the old adage “write what you know” comes not from a proscription to stay in one’s lane, but an exhortation to emotional authenticity.
Some of which is present, to varying degrees, throughout this year’s Best Picture crop, including the decidedly narrowly focused, apolitical (and quite good) “Mank” and “The Father.” (OK, maybe not “Promising Young Woman.”) Still, this hypersocially-conscious Oscar slate serves mostly as a reminder of the difficulty inherent in creating political art — whether it engages with electoral politics head-on, or the live-wire social issues faced by viewers at home each day. Absent the epic sprawl of a “Reds,” or even a miniseries like “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” there’s a complexity inherent to political and social issues that’s inevitably flattened when trying to compress them into a tidy two-hour narrative. Far more successful are efforts like “Minari” and its spiritual predecessors, which focus on a human-scale incident and allow the viewer to fill in the blanks.
For all of their flaws, however, there’s reason to be glad that this is the crop of nominees we got. If critics and the Academy incentivize such films going forward, perhaps eventually another Best Picture winner like “In the Heat of the Night” or “The Deer Hunter” might come along — another artistically ambitious landmark that imprints itself indelibly on our collective political and social consciousness. Until then, as flawed as they are — some far more than others — this year’s crop is worthy and interesting enough in their own right, if not quite as four-quadrant transcendent as the hype machine might promise.