At this time of national uncertainty — as a “short-fingered vulgarian” looks to win the presidential nomination of one major political party without ever capturing more than 50 percent of the vote in any of its primaries, as a socialist who honeymooned with the Soviets and a paranoid email scofflaw battle it out for the other party’s nomination, as our nation’s prestige abroad takes a hit and the forces of chaos spread throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe and the South China Sea — I look at the nominees for best picture at the Academy Awards and wonder: What is America?
Maybe asking this question is a retreat into the arts and an attempt to escape reality on my behalf. But the United States’ media and entertainment industry remains the largest in the world by a fair margin, and it is the way through which the rest of the planet becomes acquainted with American ideals and attitudes. If the Academy Awards represent the best and the brightest the nation has to offer — a counter, perhaps, to what we’re seeing on the cable news networks every night — it’s fair to think about the image we are broadcasting.
Perhaps America is best understood as a nation that, eventually, sets aside bureaucratic inertia, professional distrust and international intrigue to bring its people home. We are the unified nation that wants to bring Mark Watney (Matt Damon) back to Earth in “The Martian,” the people amassed in Times Square as his rescue operation reaches its crucial moment. We are made up of principled actors who will not abandon a college student to the gulag just because his fate might slow the retrieval of an American spy pilot shot down over Soviet territory, as in “Bridge of Spies.”
America is a land where the guilty are held accountable for their crimes, where lowly newspaper reporters can shine a “Spotlight” on the wrongdoing of representatives of a 2,000-year-old religion protected not only by God but also by men who control the levers of power in state capitals. We see what happens when this commitment breaks down in “The Big Short.” When the media cannot or will not play its role as watchdog and government agencies are corrupted by the revolving door, the American commitment to justice fades — with terrible consequences.
America: a land of opportunity that draws in simple immigrants from all over, puts them in close quarters in the bustling borough of “Brooklyn” and allows them the chance to find love, work and hope denied in their homeland. America: a land of suburban disconnection and sprawl, one of viciousness and repression where a child can live his first five years in a cell-sized “Room” without anyone but his long-suffering mother being the wiser.
America has in its past been an undeniably brutish place, as we see in “The Revenant.” An untamed wilderness stretching for thousands of miles and dotted with hostile bands of indigenous people, America and the Americans who inhabited it were often forced to behave harshly to survive — a harshness Leonardo DiCaprio was all-too-happy to replicate in order to prove he is, finally, worthy of winning the Best Actor trophy that has long eluded him.
The past was unforgiving, its depredations extensive. The will to survive, to overcome, to defeat this endless expanse is all that kept our explorer forbears going after grizzly bears had their way with them. One wonders how much of that will to persevere we have left in us.
But our brutish past may be nothing compared to our Trumpish future. “Mad Max: Fury Road” may not be set in America, exactly, but one would be forgiven for thinking of the Hobbesian desert when imagining life under The Donald, a strongman who viciously controls natural resources and promises his people protection from outside marauders. Immortan Trump will make Valhalla great again, you can be assured of that — but at what cost?