The Bigger Picture

OSCARS 2008: Power, Corruption, Lies

Twenty-five years ago, New Order released their breakthrough album, Power, Corruption and Lies. It contained their seminal dance floor anthem, “Blue Monday.” Never had depression sounded so lively. This year’s Oscar nominees (and big winner) were equally dour and downbeat. Yet, their depictions of the worst aspects of humanity are riveting. With the exception of the sunny comedy, Juno, the Best Picture nominees and winner No Country for Old Men depict power, corruption and lies. They are rooted in moral dilemmas: “Should I take the bag of money?” “Should I have the baby?” “Should I remain faithful to my word?” “How do I make up for the lies I’ve told?” The nominees for the 2008 Academy Awards offered cautionary tales, filled with bad choices and deadly consequences.

Juno and Atonement are about sex—or rather the consequences of sex. Juno is the warm-hearted, breakout comedy of the fall, the only box-office hit in the bunch. High school student Juno MacDuff adopts a hip, detached attitude towards life, until she faces a surprising dilemma. One spontaneous sexual encounter with her friend, Paulie Bleeker, plunges her into an adult decision. Should Juno keep the baby or ends things with an abortion? As she heads toward the clinic, a classmate confronts Juno, chanting, “All babies want to be borned.” Su-Chin adds that even fetuses have fingernails. Such a simple truth haunts Juno. She decides to bring the baby to term. But who should adopt it?

Vanessa and Mark seem like the perfect couple, eager to bring a baby into their large suburban home. But Mark turns out to have a case of arrested development. He ducks and dodges the responsibility involved in parenting. He’s still fixated on dreams of rock stardom. Juno is all about adolescence. Circumstances force Juno to grow up fast, and yet, a baby can also reveal the immaturity still lurking in adults’ hearts. First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (what a nom de plume!) won an Oscar for her smart, sassy script. She turns teen pregnancy into a dramatic problem and a comedic possibility.

Atonement is rooted in a deep, theological concept. How do we undo the mistakes we have made? What will restore fractured relationships with people near and dear to us? Atonement features all the lush settings and gorgeous characters we expect from a British costume drama. It deals with silky green dresses and broken flower vases. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star as doomed lovers, Cecilia and Robbie. They are undone by a younger sister’s jealousy. Atonement is measured, restrained and loaded with suffering—yet, the movie also plays with time in surprising ways.

Adapted from an acclaimed novel by Ian McEwen, Atonement demands careful attention. The music on the soundtrack coincides with the rhythms of a typewriter. Atonement is about storytelling, about re-imagining the messier aspects of our lives. Can we solve our problems by rewriting our stories, reshaping our histories? While life may be filled with war and regrets, Atonement suggests that a better ending awaits us. Many relationships will never be repaired this side of paradise, but genuine atonement can lead to a heavenly ending.

Michael Clayton mines the gap between our personal and professional lives. George Clooney plays the eponymous character, a fixer for a powerful law firm. Clayton considers himself a janitor cleaning up the mess created by reprehensible clients. While he fixes others’ shattered lives, privately Clayton deals with divorce and a gambling addiction, and when a senior lawyer suffers a mental meltdown, Clayton is assigned to keep him in line. But Arthur Edens is simply waking up to his moral bankruptcy. Tom Wilkinson plays the penitent Arthur, literally stripping down naked in court. Michael Clayton’s adversary on the case is Karen Crowder, U/North’s cool and cold-blooded counsel. Billions of dollars are at stake for U/North when their chemicals start to kill much more than weeds. Tilda Swinton portrays Karen as a nervous, well-rehearsed wreck. She tries to navigate a high stake, man’s world.

First-time director Tony Gilroy has made a mature film about serious moral issues. He coaxed bravura performances from a stellar cast, but unfortunately, the subject matter makes it feel overly familiar. Aren’t legal dramas always about power, corruption and lies? While reminiscent of a John Grisham thriller, Michael Clayton goes deeper into the heart of darkness that drives our moral dilemmas. The posters offer a chilling suggestion: “The truth can be adjusted.” How do we retain our moral center? Michael Clayton reminds us there is more to life than making money.

There Will Be Blood is the most ambitious picture of 2007. This historic tale features over-the-top performances and startling cinematography. It echoes classic silent films like Birth of a Nation and Greed. Director Paul Thomas Anderson constructs an operatic tale of possession and obsession.

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Daniel Plainview prospects for oil across California and adopts a son to soften his image, making him appear like a family man. He smiles broadly as he negotiates for drilling rights. But as the oil derricks arise, Plainview is revealed as ruthless as he wrestles control of the area from a local preacher. There Will Be Blood juxtaposes America’s two greatest enterprises—oil and religion. They definitely do not mix. Yet, both are revealed as potentially deadly, all consuming passions.

Daniel Day-Lewis is deserving of the Best Actor award. He absolutely owns the screen, demanding our attention. But There Will Be Blood is so extreme in its storytelling that time will tell whether it represents a cinematic milestone or mere folly. The bloody ending promised in the title shocks viewers, leaving us breathless and bereft. There Will Be Blood takes us back to Cain and Abel, when brother murdered brother out of selfish conceit. There is power in the blood, but is it rooted in vengeance rather than salvation? Paul Thomas Anderson’s flamboyant film may prove to be the most prescient take on our misguided war in Iraq. Have we sacrificed our soul for blood-stained oil?

No Country for Old Men is an instant masterpiece, and the Coen Brothers do not waste a shot or a gesture in their Best Picture winner. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel by the same name, the story merges the darkness of film noir with the open spaces of the west. It is about the dismal tide of violence that arises from greed. When hunter Llewelyn Moss encounters a drug deal gone bad, he grabs a satchel loaded with two million dollars—unfortunately for him, a calculating hit man named Anton Chigurh follows his trail. Anton’s air gun represents the most frightening murder weapon in recent cinematic history, and Javier Bardem portrays the killer with a ferocity and well-deserved the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

While many decried the harsh violence that flows throughout the film, No Country for Old Men also contains a flickering hope. Tommy Lee Jones plays a small town sheriff (Ed Tom Bell) in the twilight of his career, and Bell has seen all manner of evil in his life, but the bloody trail unleashed by Anton represents a new low. The sheriff reflects upon his life, “I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. And he didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does.” While recounting a dream Ed Tom Bell, envisions his father, going before him, building a distant fire. Power, corruption and lies may threaten to overwhelm us, but the embers of hope still glow.

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