War and the Oscars: A love story
by Jodi Berman
I love many film genres and those who keep capturing the attention of the Academy fascinate me. One such genre is war and military films. In the last ten years alone, there have been 6 or 7 Best Picture nominees whose storylines focused on war or the Armed Forces.
Recently, there has been controversy about whether these historical kinds of films should be given creative license to portray characters and episodes in ways that suits the storytelling and not the facts. For me, the only genre that is prohibited from reinterpretation is documentary, which is intended to be an observation of the actual reality of the subject. My hope is that great movies prompt a thirst for knowledge on the film’s subject, inspiring the viewer to want to learn what really happened; not to take as gospel what he sees on the screen.
I suspect that there are a few reasons for why we are so interested in these kinds of movies, and what about them makes for such powerful work on film. I think the ideas that we hold dear are those we like to see play out at their best, even if our reality outside of the theatre doesn’t always align with our beliefs.
Here’s why we laud movies about war and the military:
1. We love heroes.
America is founded on the notion that one person can make a difference, and we can’t resist watching a protagonist who believes when others don’t, who fights when others won’t, who will go up against any odds to protect and serve our American ideals.
This year, American Sniper captures what we like about single protagonist hero films. Chris Kyle is singularly focused, afraid but unafraid, and struggling with the most basic of human emotions while he commits to his duty of killing those putting Marines in harm’s way. Ultimately, there is no battle he will not face.
2. We idealize freedom.
As a culture, we say that freedom is our highest and most commendable ideal. We are drawn to narratives that reinforce and romanticize this notion.
Braveheart exemplifies this kind of film where fighting for freedom is the most important thing, no matter if one is outnumbered, no matter if one has a family to leave behind; there is nothing more important than securing the right to self determination and every sacrifice is worth it.
3. We believe in the value of every life.
In Saving Private Ryan, a group of soldiers is sent to retrieve a single soldier whose brothers have all died in the war. But we can’t bear the idea that a mother would bury every one of her children, so off they go to preserve his life. Somehow this quest for a few to save one seems improbable and yet the film resonates because we can’t imagine an entire family legacy destroyed. Each person’s life is of value and important.
4. We’re not always proud of ourselves, and art acts as a mirror to our actions.
This is probably the single most common theme in war movies which have gotten the attention of the Academy. Whether we see psychological trauma ignored, we evaluate if our actions were justified in the first place, or we reflect on how we treated those who fought when they returned home. Film as social commentary is paramount in this genre. There are many films which struggle with the notion of whether our country acted rightly or wrongly, but for me, this theme is best presented in The Killing Fields, which examines the role of the United States in Cambodia, and how a relationship between an U.S. journalist and his guide changed the American forever.
The truth is that there are so many outstanding military films with Oscar nominations. I came up with a list of 17, starting with Patton in 1970 and ending in American Sniper in 2015, with everything from Zero Dark Thirty (2012) to Apocalypse Now (1979) in between. It is clearly a rich source of stories and I suspect that there will continue to be more as the world engages in conflicts around the world.
What are your favorite war films that the Academy has recognized, or snubbed?
To read more of “And The Oscar Goes To…” stories, please click below:
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The Oscars are coming! The Oscars are coming!