Sunday, 21 February 2010

Two Oscar Nominees

This weekend we caught two nominees for 2010 Oscars, The Hurt Locker, up for Best Motion Picture, and The Most Dangerous Man in America, nominated in the Best Documentary category.

Seeing the former film means that we've now seen 7 out of the 10 Best Picture nominees (the total number has been raised from the usual 5 just this year). This stacks on top of Up In The Air, An Education, Avatar, A Serious Man, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. So, assuming that it's not one of the films that we've not seen, who should win?

Well, the favourites appear to be Avatar and The Hurt Locker, but I don't think either really deserve it. Avatar is jolly enough, but it basically boils down to little more than spectacle. THL is clearly the more serious film, and while I thought that it had some great scenes, I just didn't think it hung together terribly well as a film. The narrative jumps around semi-randomly between the major scenes, and while the overarching thread (that war can be an addiction) comes across [*], the script could definitely have been tightened. It's too much like a series of isolated events that only spasmodically illuminate or advance character. Really, films need to summarise and be more lucid in their themes. So says the armchair critic.

Taking in all of the runners that we've seen, my favourites for the top spot are Up In The Air and District 9 (though the latter would require that the jury be in a pretty sci-fi tolerant mood). Overall, I'd say that while the field isn't a particularly strong one this year, it doesn't have any egregious duffers in it. There's certainly nothing as soul-destroying as Braveheart, Titanic or (the horror) Gladiator in there.

[*] Not least because the film begins with a quote to this effect. Duh, talk about unnecessary foreshadowing.

By way of contrast, I can be a lot more positive about The Most Dangerous Man in America. This documentary is a watchable and very informative introduction to the so-called Pentagon Papers, and the tale of their leak to the US press by the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. And what a tale it is!

Ellsberg began as a hawkish analyst, actually a former marine, who changed his mind on the war in Vietnam, in part based on his hands-on experience on the ground. But he came to realise that no matter what he said to his superiors or what wrote in secret reports for them, successive administrations remained committed to an escalating but futile conflict. So over the course of a number of weeks he gradually photocopied his way through a highly critical report, the Pentagon Papers, that had been commissioned by Robert McNamara (himself the subject of the excellent documentary The Fog of War) to examine the full history of US-Vietnam relations. The report, in which Ellsberg was a contributor, candidly exposed the compounded mistakes made by every US administration after the Second World War, but was neither acted upon nor released to the public.

Ellsberg initially leaked it to several US senators hostile to the Vietnam War, but when they sat on it he then leaked it to the US press. In fairly short order he was identified as the leaker and, together with a RAND corporation colleague, was ultimately tried in court. However, the tactics adopted by the Nixon administration in pursuing this prosecution, which dovetailed with those employed in the Watergate scandal, ultimately led to it being thrown out of court. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The documentary tells all of this and much more about the political events, but along the way it also brings in a lot of very interesting detail from Ellsberg's own life. We hear about his on-off-on-again romance with his anti-Vietnam girlfriend (now wife), the assistance of his children with the leak and the family tragedy that blighted his early life. This probably all sounds stodgy and worthy here, but it works great in the film.

However, will the film win? As this is the only one of the documentaries that we've seen, it's impossible to judge. And with a less-warmongering President in office, it's not got a head of political steam behind it. But if it does, it'll be well-earned. Roll on Sunday March 7, 2010 ...

In passing, a particular thought that occurred to me while watching the detail of the Pentagon Papers unspooling, was that while the Iraq War was instigated for all the wrong reasons and with all manner of unfortunate consequences, the circumstances surrounding the conflict in Vietnam show it to have been a much more significant débâcle. It embroiled a series of administrations, none of whom seemed to learned anything from it, and all of whom strove to keep the public ill-informed or misinformed about it. And with a much, much higher body count.

Another, partly positive thought was that although the various US administrations presented hawkish façades in relation to Vietnam, sane and critical opinions were still expressed behind the scenes. Admittedly, they weren't heard anywhere near early enough, but they existed and ultimately played a role in bringing the war to an end. That said, they kept publicly quiet for years, and it took one (brave) person to break ranks and reveal what they were saying behind their masters' backs. Would I have leaked?

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