‘People need dramatic examples. . . . As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” That’s a line spoken by Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the first film in the trilogy that concluded last year with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. In the past year, symbolic presentations of good and evil ruled at the box office. The list of 2012’s top-grossing films leads off with The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games; and The Hobbit, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Brave are all in the top ten. That is not surprising; fantasy films of various sorts have dominated the box office for the last decade. What is surprising is that there is less of a gap than in many years between these highest-grossing films and the group of films nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars. Six of the nine nominees have grossed at least $100 million in domestic box office. And, strikingly and perhaps not merely coincidentally, they feature credible stories of heroic struggles against daunting odds and in the face of formidable malevolent threats.
Particularly noteworthy on the fantasy side are the success of Peter Jackson’s versions of Tolkien’s stories and the continuing popularity of Nolan’s refashioning of the Batman myth. Although the loosely structured plot and the imprudent use of amped-up 3-D made The Hobbit a much less impressive bit of filmmaking than any installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, its success indicates the enduring allure of Tolkien’s magical universe, with its cosmic battle between good and evil. In his trilogy, Nolan did something remarkable, which was to invest the Batman myth with philosophical gravity and to create a neo-noir city, Gotham, in which corruption is pervasive and the dividing line between good and evil characters is uncertain. Yet Bruce Wayne/Batman continues to believe that “Gotham is not beyond redemption.” And Nolan managed to end on a surprisingly hopeful note, the literary inspiration for which was Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.
As impressive as is the success of these superhero fantasy films, they do not fill a gap that has loomed large in Hollywood for many years, namely, the production of hopeful stories featuring ordinary Americans facing difficulties and responding with resilience and virtue. But this year, the list of nominated films in the category of Best Picture is replete with such stories. Setting aside Amour, a fine foreign film, Life of Pi, a story about an Indian boy’s quest for God, and Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of damnation and redemption, the remaining films – Django Unchained, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty — are all American stories about struggle, hope, and in most cases victory.
Now, the absence of superheroes in this list of nominated films does not mean that we have left fantasy entirely behind; in particular, Beasts and Pi are fantasies that feature children coming to terms with familial loss and horror, and both celebrate the imaginative resources and resilience of their main characters. Silver Linings, the weakest of the nominated films, is unlike many of the others in that it is neither a fantasy nor a film rooted in dramatic historical events. Yet it too is an optimistic, if highly predictable, story about disaster and despair averted, a contemporary love story in the midst of often humorous family dysfunction.
According to most prognosticators, the top contenders for best picture are Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty, with Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, having the greatest momentum in recent weeks. Lincoln is a remarkable achievement, with an epic sweep and numerous memorable scenes; it also deserves credit for creating high drama out of legislative wrangling over a constitutional amendment. And it manages to achieve a difficult balance in the depiction of Lincoln, who is at once regal and an everyman. But it is often ponderous and not nearly as entertaining as the other contenders. Argo, about the 1979–80 Iranian hostage crisis, is the slightest of the three, but it is an entrancing film with understated performances that serve, rather than get in the way of, the storytelling.
To my mind, however, both are inferior to Zero Dark Thirty. Of the many — far too many — films approaching the three-hour mark in viewing time, only Zero merits its length. The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it astonishingly manages to sustain a high level of suspense even though everyone knows the outcome.
Zero has a highly intelligent script that doesn’t make concessions to audience ignorance. It assumes not just that we know who KSM is but also that we can supply the background to the various terrorist attacks between 9/11 and the killing of bin Laden. The occasional depiction of these attacks makes it clear that the hunt for bin Laden was the result not of a lingering fascination with a cold case but of a desire for justice and the need to contain an ongoing threat.
All three of these films focus on the exercise and role of American political power in situations of duress. Argo and Zero both make the CIA look good, and Lincoln borders on celebrating an imperial presidency.