Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
BlackSea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)
And in 2016:
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)
It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.
This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.
Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?
Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.
Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) came and went late last summer in limited release, but I don’t recall it ever coming to a theater near me. Which is just as well, because it is horrible. Ostensibly a comedy, the biggest laugh that the film story elicits occurs when a French woman struggles to pronounce the word “happiness.” The titular character, though embodied by Simon Pegg (one of my favorites), and all those who surround him are so criminally underdeveloped that it is difficult to care much about anyone in the film except in a more theoretical way that the filmmakers don’t support. What’s worse, the representation of the bored British psychiatrist’s journey around the world to find out what makes people happy paints multiple far-flung cultures in broad, caricatured brushstrokes. There is virtually no cultural specificity in any of the places that he visits, and when director and co-writer Peter Chelsom and crew attempt to add critical dissections of serious impediments to people’s general health and well-being in these places, these issues are wiped under the rug, never to be disturbed again. In case you are new to Hector and the Search for Happiness, be warned that I am going to spoil it now. And while you’re at it, take a peek at the film’s trailer to see how much potential the filmmakers wasted.
I have not read the original source novel by French psychiatrist François Lelord, but apparently its raison d’être is to educate a general readership about the psychology of happiness and to offer tips on finding it in everyday life. This explains why, after almost every interaction with someone throughout his international adventure, Hector jots down in his journal maxims such as “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” and “Happiness is not always knowing the full story.” These words are scrawled across the screen in order to keep a running tally of all the lessons learned, as if the film is a PowerPoint lecture. Hector also fills the pages of his notebook, which sexy and domineering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) gifted him upon his departure, with cutesy doodles of what his childish imagination encounters abroad. The main lesson he must learn is that losing Clara, even though she smothers him with a routine (always the same breakfast; she clips his toenails and packs his bag), would make him really unhappy. That’s right: he goes on this purportedly life-changing adventure only to realize that he likes his life just as it is. Although the couple’s Skype conversations widen the chasm between them more and more throughout, as the film drags on, there is never any doubt as to the fate of their relationship.
And this is why Hector’s first stop in “China” is so perplexing. He never gives any reason as to why he starts there (and isn’t it the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that is regularly cited as the happiest place on earth?) or what he is going to do once he arrives. But Hector doesn’t need a plan when he has filthy rich businessman Stellan Skarsgård to act as his guide in an unnamed Shanghai. It truly boggles the mind as to why Skarsgård’s Edward, so annoyed by Hector on the plane ride over from London, would take the ridiculous man under his wing and show him a good time. For, unbeknownst to Hector, Edward has secured the services of a prostitute named Ying Li (Ming Zhao) to keep Hector company in the nightclub and beyond. Although Clara gave Hector permission to fool around while on his trip, he winds up falling asleep before Ying Li can even get into the bed. At lunch the next day, believing he’s falling in love, Hector discovers the truth when her pimp whisks her away. Hector tries to do the honorable thing and stand up to him, but, despite calling her john “nice,” Ying Li hits Hector on the head and rides away. She doesn’t want his help. So in one fell swoop, Hector goes from ruminating that perhaps happiness is being in love with two women at the same time to realizing that he’s happier not knowing Ying Li’s full story. I never expected the film to engage the topics of prostitution and sexual tourism in Shanghai, but since the filmmakers did, I find it morally reprehensible that Hector, a psychiatrist, would find it so easy to disengage. It’s not as if Ying Li was happy to see her pimp, to return to her life as a sexually exploited woman. She seemed confused as to how she felt about Hector, as if wondering whether or not he could provide an escape. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a film about a white male tourist “saving” a Chinese prostitute. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how the experience of falling for a woman, no matter her profession, had exactly no consequences on Hector’s outlook other than admitting he rather just be ignorant of the circumstances of her life.
But it only gets worse. From Shanghai, Hector treks through the Himalayas to a remote Buddhist monastery. No one mentions the place by name, but it is easy to assume that he has entered Tibet, to seek the advice of Togo Igawa’s Old Monk (the filmmakers couldn’t even give him a name), who mainly just speaks in rhetorical loop-de-loops to help Hector arrive at the lesson that always avoiding things that make you unhappy is no surefire way to attain long-lasting happiness. He spends all of five minutes there, without ever contemplating how the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan statehood might affect the happiness of the people living and working there.
Then he moves on to “Africa.” I found this section the most offensive, beginning with the filmmakers’ failure to name a more specific region or country. Perhaps they left the place intentionally unidentified so as to not incur the wrath of people and governments of a particular place or area. But this lack of cultural specificity effectually purports that Hector’s “Africa” stands in for a whole continent, dominated by warlords foreign-born and native alike, backward villagers who travel with their chickens on prop planes, and “Western” organizations that provide humanitarian aid. In fact, Hector spends two weeks helping his medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) at the clinic he runs with his African boyfriend. Embarrassingly, it takes him a full two weeks to recognize that Michael and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are romantically involved, coming to the delightful conclusion that “Happiness is when you are loved for who you are.” Unfortunately, just as Michael’s work is merely the conduit through which Hector can explore “Africa,” the former’s sexual relationship with Marcel exists purely as a way for Hector to learn this widely shared belief. Hector doesn’t seem to care about the challenges that the mixed-race, homosexual couple—his friends—must face in this setting. And nor do the filmmakers.
Hector continuously acts the fool, and he even comes to the aid of a local warlord named Diego Baresco (Jean Reno). Despite warnings from Michael and Marcel about warlords in the area, Hector proves his goodness to Baresco, who suspects him of working for an international peace-keeping outfit that swoops in only to leave before seeing their work through. Hector reviews the prescriptions that Baresco’s beloved wife takes and makes revisions to her regime, thereby instilling some peace of mind in Baresco. They get drunk together, and on his ride back to the clinic, Hector fails to recognize that his taxi cab has been hijacked by two armed rebels, because all black men look the same to him. He’s soon taken hostage, destined to rot in a cell with one rat as his friend. It’s unclear as to how long he is held captive, and of course we have no idea what the rebels seek to accomplish with their violent acts. We’re just supposed to accept this, because isn’t that what happens in Africa? According to this film, white European and American tourists go missing all the time and are swept into guerrilla warfare. Hector uses Baresco’s pen to negotiate his release, for his captors fear retribution from Hector’s powerful “friend.” They abandon Hector on a country road, and “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” is emblazoned on the screen. Yes, absolutely, but did we need such an extreme scenario to demonstrate this? Especially since nothing becomes of it? Hector doesn’t suffer any post-traumatic stress, and we never witness Michael’s or Marcel’s worry over Hector’s abduction. Before moving on to Los Angeles to meet his former med school flame Agnes (Toni Collette), Hector experiences the gloriousness of sweet potato stew, which a baby-swaddling woman on the prop plane promised to prepare for him once they landed safely in “Africa.” It’s supposed to be physically and emotionally fulfilling, but we viewers never see it. The filmmakers can’t even commit to showing us a traditional “African” dish.
In Los Angeles, Hector takes part in Professor Coreman’s (Christopher Plummer) neuroscience study to map emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear across different parts of the brain. After breaking up with Clara over the phone because his traveling to Los Angeles has finally signaled for the couple that Hector still longs for Agnes, Hector exhibits all three emotions in the scanner, lighting up Coreman’s screen with a rainbow of colors that the professor has assigned to each emotional state. Is this the payoff we’re supposed to receive from Hector and the Search for Happiness? What makes Hector special is his ability to feel happiness, sadness, and fear at the same time when recalling a wide range of events in his life? Having been rebuffed by Agnes, a happily married psychologist with a third child on the way, Hector determines that he must get back to London to be with Clara. As I said before, they live happily ever after. He’s more emotionally available and compassionate towards his patients, and Clara finally realizes that, yes, she wants to have a baby with Hector.
The one bright spot in this mess is the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Although their relationship isn’t exactly desirable (she takes great pride in clipping his toe nails!), they have an appealing, silly rapport in scenes where they interact in person. In fact, most of their exchanges occur over video conferencing calls. Notably, Hector and the Search for Happiness may be implying that staying connected through this kind of technology is no substitute for human contact (when Hector tries to tell her that he’d been kidnapped, she fails to register the gravity of the situation). Even phone conversations do not go well between them. There is simply a lack of communication between the lovers, and isn’t that a definite sign of their incompatibility? Clara cannot make up her mind regarding Hector’s up and leaving her for an indeterminate period of time. Hector needs to leave the person he loves in order to realize that happiness lies in a life made with her. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, especially since we watch him come to this conclusion under the most ridiculous of circumstances. As I said before, I am a huge fan of Pegg’s, and it was disappointing to see him attached to such bone-headed and culturally insensitive material. I wonder what attracted him to it in the first place: Hector’s childhood love of The Adventures of Tin Tin, maybe? Then again, shooting a film about happiness around the world does sound really exciting. If only the film wasn’t so concerned with checking off the lessons in the original source novel and instead let the characters interact with each other in more plausible, organic ways.
A few years ago, I published online an essay whose title encapsulated my frustration at the time with the apparent lack of compelling, universally humanistic film roles for women: “Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?” Inspired by a vision I had of a lone woman astronaut shuttling through space (Sally Ride had just died), I contemplated a future where women characters in film might “have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women,” mainly being a wife and/or mother. The potential I see in women film characters, and women in general, is the narrative ability to illuminate the human condition for everyone.
On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony’s television broadcast, I habitually observe and reflect on the nominations. At this point, each of the four acting categories appears to offer no surprises when it will come time to announce the winners. Julianne Moore (Lead Actress, Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Boyhood), Eddie Redmayne (Lead Actor, The Theory of Everything), and J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash) have routinely won acting trophies for their respective film roles while competing on the awards circuit this season. With the outcome of these contests all but a certainty, I recognize that the most competitive category is that of Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and it collectively represents the fulfillment of my wish from over two years ago, with a few caveats. In other words, most performances in this category capture, for lack of a better turn of phrase, what it’s like to be human. If film is an art form that helps us make sense of our lives, we cannot take the woman’s experience for granted, as Academy voters have done. Of the five nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, only one top-lines a film that is not nominated for Best Picture: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. However, only one nominated female lead performance appears in a Best Picture contender: The Theory of Everything, as if to say that women-centered films are not prestigious (read: worthy) or capable of addressing everyone.
Rather than run through the list of nominees alphabetically, I want to discuss them in the chronological order that I first encountered them. Maybe it’s the simple passage of time or the workings of an unreliable memory, but every performance seemed to be better than the last one I saw. Fair warning: in my analysis, I give away many plot details of each film.
At the beginning of October, Gone Girl kicked off the season of awards-friendly motion pictures, and I remember thinking throughout my viewing of it that Rosamund Pike, the titular “girl,” deserves a nomination for her portrait of a bonafide psychopath. As Amy Dunne, the dissatisfied wife of Ben Affleck’s mysterious charmer Nick Dunne, Pike both fakes her own kidnapping (and possible murder) and then frames her husband for it. It isn’t until halfway through that the viewer discovers that Amy, the subject of a statewide search, is in fact alive and on the run. Having set as her mission the complete and humiliating obliteration of Nick’s character as well as his eventual imprisonment, Amy watches from afar (using the national media circus surrounding their small Missouri town) as the forged artifacts and clues that she doctored to point towards Nick’s guilt gradually fall into place. The most lethal part of her scheme (killing a man in supposed self-defense in order to fake her abduction) ultimately reunites husband and wife. In the media spotlight she has helped orchestrate and direct, Amy uses the public court of opinion to both absolve Nick of any crime that the American public previously found him guilty of committing and to imprison him in an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive marriage.
While Gone Girl and Amy’s role in it do not exactly conform to fulfilling my desire to see women in films who are unattached, undefined by their relationships to men and/or children, the David Fincher-directed thriller, which author Gillian Flynn adapted from her bestselling novel of the same name, at least deconstructs the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Keeping Amy’s machinations hidden until halfway through the picture, her perspective only relayed through fake found journals, not only shifts perspectives on the couple’s lives (from Nick’s to Amy’s), it also produces one helluva denouement. Amy’s cold and clinical calculations upend our previous idea of her, whether as flirtatious (the memory of their meet-cute), sacrificial (a longtime cosmopolitan, she left New York for suburban Missouri when Nick’s mother became terminally ill), or even physically abused (her fake journal embellishes an altercation with Nick in order to vilify him). More than this, Amy presents a pathologically sociopathic and misandrous response to patriarchy, going to libelous and murderous extremes to pervert the idea of a traditional marriage. As the primary breadwinner upon their transplant to the Midwest, Amy strikes back at Nick for his philandering ways and emotional neglect so that when he finds himself trapped in this controlling and harmful marriage (to say, “loveless” would be an understatement), she is not defined by her relationship to him so much as he is defined by whatever she thinks or says about him. In this way, Gone Girl examines how relationships bind us and in this process, redefines the rules of attachment. The opening and closing scenes, wherein Nick strokes his wife’s hair and, through voiceover narration, muses about how we really don’t know what goes on in the mind of our chosen companion, index our struggles with loneliness and desire to be free.
A Best Picture contender, The Theory of Everything is ostensibly a handsome biopic of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Based upon Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of the thirty years she was married to him, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, the film is mostly focalized through her experience. While Eddie Redmayne receives almost unanimous praise for his physical transformation as Stephen, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963 at age 21 and around the same time that he met fellow Cambridge student Jane, it is actually Felicity Jones as the scientist’s first wife who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film. The Theory of Everything doesn’t propose a film story about a woman uncharacterized by her relationship to a man and their children. Just the opposite, but it is worth discussing very briefly, to correct notions that the film is about a famous man and the people in his life. In fact, given the film’s source material, it is easy to argue that the film is about a woman and the famous man in her life. This does not mean that The Theory of Everything is a so-called “woman’s film,” but it is a family drama centered from the woman’s perspective.
In his review of the film, New York film critic David Edelstein writes that, “as the film’s focus drifts to [Jane], I found myself resenting the character—not for wanting more from her life, but for yanking the narrative away from by far the more fascinating figure.” I agree that the first part of the film focuses primarily on Stephen’s experience, combining his academic coming-of-age (meeting advisors’ expectations—or not—and choosing a dissertation topic) with his struggle to adjust to a rapidly degenerative disease as well as a nascent romance with Jane. She may have walked into his life at a party, but I argue that as soon as Jane determines that he should be a part of her life, she wrestles the picture away from him, and that gesture does make her both fascinating and compelling. I still cannot shake the image of the couple’s pronounced declaration of togetherness (it’s been used in the film’s marketing campaign, to boot) wherein they hold hands and joyously spin around. Significantly, it is Jane who initiates their little ball of energy, pulling Stephen into her orbit. Young and in love, Jane doesn’t realize the kind of life she commits herself to when she refuses to forget Stephen. For he far out-lives his life expectancy of two years, and as time marches on she becomes increasingly frustrated with her life. Taking care of Stephen and raising their children are two full-time jobs, and her own academic ambitions take a backseat to her husband’s. We witness the effect that choosing Stephen has on her life, and a romantic dalliance with a widowed choirmaster offers her some release. Jonathan (Charlie Cox) assists Jane with raising the kids and caring for Stephen, who condones their sexual relationship. Unable to face up to the rumors that Jane’s third child is his, Jonathan makes himself scarce. After Stephen loses his ability to speak and acquires a computer that will serve as his voice box, Jane recognizes that she can no longer support Stephen the way that he needs and reunites with Jonathan. She is a fascinating character, because she is willing to change her life and seek the fulfillment of her desires.
The Theory of Everything shines a light on one of the brightest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates that, to rephrase that old adage, “behind every great mind is a woman.” The title derives from Stephen’s quest to marry Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics, but it just as equally signifies that love is the answer to what binds people together for however long they can hold on. In this way, contextualizing Stephen Hawking’s life story and scientific and cultural contributions through his wife’s experience makes the case that they couldn’t have accomplished as much separately as they did together. If finding (self-)gratification is one of the tenets of the human condition, then Theory of Everything demonstrates how our desires are constantly in flux.
Months later, and with memories of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones sloshing around in my head, I finally saw Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. I fell so hard for this film, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for its screenplay (by novelist Nick Hornby), cinematography (Yves Bélanger), and direction (Jean-Marc Vallée). Hell, I think Wild is easily one of the best films of the year and deserves one of those coveted spots not to exceed ten. Although I have never been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, I was in awe of the humanistic depth of her physical performance. It wasn’t so much a transformation—not like Eddie Redmayne’s or Charlize Theron’s for her Oscar-winning role in Monster where she turned out completely unrecognizable. Instead, Witherspoon perfectly embodies a woman who has been too hard on herself, on her spirit and on her body. When her young mother (Laura Dern in an achingly small but beautiful performance) dies of cancer, Cheryl grieves in an unexpected way, one that leads her astray from her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and into the arms of heroin addiction. With a painful divorce and an extramarital abortion behind her, Cheryl continues on her path to recovery under the most extreme of conditions: hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Along the way from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, she treks across a variety of terrain and climates (arid deserts, snow-capped mountains, Pacific Northwest rainforests) and encounters myriad threats, ranging from animal attacks and lost shoes to death by starvation/thirst and violent sexual assault.
Although Cheryl’s grief and infidelities may have instigated her pilgrimage, Wild isn’t about a woman defined by her relationship to her ex-husband Paul. The experience of losing him and herself in her grief even influences Cheryl to invent a new last name on the divorce papers: Strayed. In fact, Wild is a film about a woman’s self-programmed reinvention, or as the memoir’s subtitle states, she goes “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Cheryl takes ownership of the mistakes that she has made and grapples with how she took her mother for granted (but thankfully, like in this year’s indie rom-com extraordinaire Obvious Child, she unapologetically chooses an abortion when she stumbles into an unwanted pregnancy). By letting go of her social attachments for three months, during which time she calls on Paul and friends for support of the motivational and material kind, Cheryl learns to forgive and love herself again. For me, the most poignant aspect of the film is that Cheryl chooses her relationship with Bobbi as the one to define her, saying, “My mother was the love of my life.”
Moreover, Wild comes the closest of the Best Actress nominees so far in proposing a film about the human condition that just happens to be focalized through a woman’s experience. As I have already mentioned, the film is about self-programmed reinvention, love and regret, life and death. I imagine that we can all relate to a character who hurts the people who are closest, sometimes purposefully, sometimes without thinking at all. This doesn’t make the character a bad person, just someone who needs to learn to appreciate what life and love can offer. Crucially, it is too late for Cheryl to treat Bobbi as she deserved, but Cheryl’s arduous and
somewhat ascetic pilgrimage brings this all into focus. Presenting a woman’s story as universally humanistic is feminist in its own right, but Wild also engages the philosophy in more pointed ways. For example, virtually everyone she meets on the trail is astonished at her abilities and takes umbrage at her insistence to hike the trail without a male companion. She even locks heads with a reporter from The Hobo News who cannot comprehend her voluntary choice to drop out of society for a while and thus identifies her as a lost soul, a “hobo” with no job, home, or family. But most surprising of all, a group of three young men on the trail adopt Cheryl as their personal hero, having read her poetic entries in guest-books, which quote feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. Believing feminism to be part and parcel of humanism, Wild makes clear, as bell hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”
Just when I thought this year’s nominated lead performances by women couldn’t get any richer, I saw Marion Cotillard, de-glamorized, in Two Days, One Night. It is a much smaller film than the others, both in scale and, seemingly, in depth. Cotillard plays a working-class laborer who, given the weekend, must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their one thousand-euro bonuses so that she can keep her job. Whether or not the solar panel factory can legally put her continued employment to a vote by its employees is never questioned, but almost everyone she confronts points out that the boss’s ultimatum is unfair. Shot in their characteristic social realist/fly-on-the-wall style, the latest film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne plays out like a thriller of a cruel joke: Will she get enough votes to keep her job? How many more times do we have to hear her plead with her co-workers to vote for her? Asking for anyone’s help is an ordeal in and of itself for Sandra, who, when the film begins, is on the brink of returning to work following a long absence (it gradually becomes clearer that she suffered a mental breakdown). A pathetic decision, choosing to speak with people in person whenever possible is costly in terms of time (she zigzags all over town in order to track them down at their homes, on the street, or in corner groceries or laundromats) and an emotionally draining exercise in futility. Thankfully, no two encounters are exactly the same, even if those unwilling to help her always have the same reason: they need the money, whether to pay their child’s tuition, build an addition to their house, or cover the electric bill for six months.
What makes Two Days, One Night so quietly impressive is its premise: to what lengths will someone go to keep her job? How will she convince human being after human being, with wants and needs not completely unidentical to her own, to sacrifice material gain in order to come to her aid? How will she react when, based on the number of votes pledged in her favor so far, her future looks bleak? Providing Sandra with a psychiatric disorder heightens the stakes—and the Dardennes do go to some dark places—but otherwise Two Days, One Night could be about anyone. In fact, there isn’t much character development in terms of Sandra’s familial role so as to make the part gender-specific. In other words, she spends so little time with her two children that her identity as mother does not define her. Even Sandra’s greatest champion, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), frames her ordeal as one about recovering her lost pride. Her humanity, and her repeated attempts to coax the more humane choice out of her peers, defines Sandra. Of course the couple needs her income to get by, but their situation is no more dire than that of most of her co-workers. In this way, the film is about overcoming adversity and preserving your own self-worth, arguably the most humanistic ideal. Come Monday morning, Sandra is one vote shy of keeping her job. Touched by the generosity of some of her colleagues, she refuses the boss’s offer to rehire her at the end of the season, because it would mean that one of her pledges would lose his contract with the company. Initially stunning, her decision to incur further economic hardship isn’t just about worker solidarity but also personal integrity. The final scene of Sandra’s bad-news phone call to Manu represents a revolution of some sorts: walking away from the factory, smiling, Sandra is buoyant with every step, personally motivated by the support of Manu and her co-workers to find another job. If she can get through this past weekend, she can approach any new challenge with enough courage and integrity to overcome it.
Rounding out the five nominees for Best Actress, Julianne Moore presents a deeply moving and sensitive portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name. Admittedly, I am not Moore’s biggest fan (she’s usually too showy for my tastes), and the negative reviews of the film colored my perception of it going in. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the film “plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week.” However, not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, I was also overcome by profound sadness and grief, unable to talk about what I had just seen without choking up. Who cares if Still Alice is emotionally manipulative? More than any of the other films nominated in this category, Still Alice examines what makes us who we are while confronting our own mortality.
A world-famous linguistics professor at Columbia University, Alice Howland is the first to recognize that “something is wrong with [her].” Sometimes she can’t find the right word, and at other times she gets disoriented on her aerobic runs around the neighborhood. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), writes off her worries as evidence that at 50, she’s simply getting older. Determined to find the root of her newfound problems (it feels like her brain is slipping farther and farther away from her), she sees a neurologist in secret and eventually receives the dreaded diagnosis. The effects of the disease would be difficult for anyone to cope with, but as her doctor explains, since Alice carries the familial gene for early onset Alzheimer’s and is extremely well-educated, she can expect to deteriorate more rapidly than if she didn’t have the gene and wasn’t so well-educated. She simply has much more to lose, and for a linguist whose life’s work has been the study of human communication systems, the thought of losing her ability to relate who she is with words is devastating. As it is for me, as it is for anyone.
But Alice is intellectually resourceful, and she can better compensate for her incapacities. It takes a while for her to admit defeat and leave her tenured position (her meeting with the chair of her department is the most implausible scene in the whole picture, for it would never be up to her colleagues to dismiss her because she has a health issue). John and their three children try to look after Alice as best they can. Eventually, their youngest, the Los Angeles-set aspiring actress and free spirit Lydia (Kristen Stewart), agrees to move back to New York to serve as Alice’s primary caregiver when John accepts a position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship, Alice’s older children, the lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth) and the medical student Tom (Hunter Parrish), suffer from a severe lack of character development. While Anna and Lydia sometimes butt heads as to what is best for their mother, Tom’s only real function is to accompany Alice to a talk she gives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Film critic Jason Bailey denigrated this speech as a “forced, false moment” by writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, thereby completely forgetting that the scene parallels an earlier keynote address she gave at a linguistics event where she spoke confidently on topics related to her main line of inquiry: why do humans talk and how to they learn to communicate? In the later scene, the transformation that Alice has undergone throughout the film is palpable. Anxious and insecure, she must use a highlighter as she speaks at the podium so that she does not lose her place in the speech. Frustrated with her inability to write a persuasive argument using medical and linguistic jargon, she takes Lydia’s advice and writes about how it feels to lose her mind. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. For, as it is made clear throughout the picture, we are who we are because we have made ourselves into whoever we want to be. For Alice, that has been an expert on language acquisition, an equal partner in a loving relationship with a man who confidently says she was the smartest person he’d ever met, and a dependable and accepting mother.
Still Alice also makes the case that we are who we are because of what we remember. As Alice grapples with her diagnosis, slipping farther and farther away from the people in her life, she returns to memories of her sister, whom she lost as a teenager. I initially dismissed the final scene of the film, failing to recognize that Alice’s imagining she and her sister on a beach is her defiant stance against the havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks on her mind. She clings to this memory as if to remind herself of who she is. This shot immediately follows the scene in which Lydia reads from the play Angels in America and asks her mother if she knows what the speech is about. Alice smiles and struggles to say, “Love.” Again, in his review of Still Alice, which he labels “desperate” and unoriginal, Bailey fails to see how the film’s ending illuminates something fundamental about the human experience: our appreciation and understanding of art and how it reflects our perception of what the meaning of life is. The Flavorwire film critic finds Glatzer and Westmoreland’s “desperation… particularly rancid at the end” because, “in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America.” In presumably one of Alice’s last moments of clarity, she demonstrates for Lydia that she is still present, that she can understand Tony Kushner’s complex speech, and that she loves her daughter and her long-lost sister. It doesn’t matter that these “moving and profound” words, to correct Bailey’s statement, are not Alice’s or Lydia’s. Not everything we say or do is original; the purpose of art is to draw connections between experiences, and the meaning of life is to see how art shapes us.
Contrary to what Russell Crowe thinks about roles for older women in Hollywood, the reality is that quality parts for women at any age are terribly lacking. While most Oscar prognosticators, critics, and cinephiles like myself watch the Academy Awards tonight and lament the fatedness of Julianne Moore’s, Patricia Arquette’s, Eddie Redmayne’s, and J.K. Simmons’s prize-winning, I will remember that for the first time in a long while, it seems that every nominee in the Best Actress category was phenomenal. Rather than choose a winner, I wish we could simply celebrate these five actresses and many more, because they brought to life film characters whose experiences illuminated different facets of the human condition. I hope this trend in representing women with “interesting, fully realized inner lives” continues. And I don’t care if they are wives or mothers anymore. Restricting what kinds of parts women play in film and in society isn’t humane.
For months leading up to its March 2012 release, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) was billed as the next franchise based on a series of young adult novels set to break box office records, and it delivered. I stayed clear of the theater when it came out because news reports on TV showed the books’ fans camping out days ahead of time, and I will do pretty much anything to avoid a crowd. When I finally learned the premise (children and teens from “districts” all over a future dystopian North American nation are ritually forced to fight each other to the death in an annual televised event), I quickly identified the parallels with the once-banned Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000). One Saturday, my dad came home from services at shul and related that his young rabbi used The Hunger Games and a crucial plot twist from the third act to make a point in his sermon (my dad told me what it was). The film effectively spoiled, I took my time seeking it out, which I only did because, as a film historian, I am interested in what people watch. Having now seen it, I can tell you that The Hunger Games was made with only its built-in audience of fanatical readers in mind: the teenagers and their parents as well as the child-free adults under 40 who never encountered a pop culture trend they didn’t like (see Fifty Shades of Grey for more proof). I can’t comment on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, having never even read a single sentence from any of the novels, but isn’t it telling that as one of the screenwriters, the author allows co-writer-director Gary Ross to water down the disturbing conceit with a boring and self-conscious indictment of our popular culture that I’m not sure any of the rabid fans fully understands? As always, there be spoilers ahead.
Sometime in the distant future, an oppressive government in Panem institutes a sacrificial blood-letting of Olympic proportions: as penance for a past rebellion, one boy and one girl from each of the nation’s twelve districts is chosen from a lottery (called a “Reaping” and, per my dad, resembling the Nazis’ rounding up of European Jews) to train and compete in the eponymous competition. The film begins as the 74th Hunger Games get underway. Our heroine who’s handy with a bow and arrow, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), lives with her good-for-nothing mother (Paula Malcolmson) and darling younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in the impoverished District 12. A mining and milling community with sanitation systems straight from the 19th century and simple, drab clothing that contrasts sharply with the out-there fashions of other Panem citizens, District 12 brings abject Appalachia to mind (these scenes were shot in North Carolina). At the Reaping, Primrose’s name is called in what amounts to an interminable, super-serious scene that ends in Katniss becoming the first-ever voluntary participant. Like the actress’s character in Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), for which Lawrence received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Katniss is a teenage survivor who lives and is willing to die for her sister. Yes, of course, the scene is appropriately dour, but it tries too hard, what with the cartoonish appearance and overly enthusiastic pronouncements of emcee Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the audience’s failure to applaud for the Capitol-produced introductory propaganda video or the selection of Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Katniss and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol for the Games, and that’s ostensibly where the action begins, only it actually stalls.
While screening the movie on DVD, I wrote in my notes (in all caps, mind) that The Hunger Games is “indulgent”: “It takes its time [introducing characters and situations] because the filmmakers know their built-in audience has memorized everything in the book and wants to savor these characters and scenes” as much as possible. Hence Haymitch Abernathy’s (Woody Harrelson) languorous introduction as the teens’ reluctant mentor (he’s a cynical drunk who thinks neither one has got what it takes to survive and win). So much of the scene that revolves around Haymitch, on the high-speed train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, does just that: it revolves around and barely includes him. Katniss and Peeta scrutinize his character and debate whether or not they should trust his guidance, occasionally allowing a somewhat flamboyant Harrelson to participate. To me, this is storytelling as clumsy and lazy as Ross’s shooting Katniss’s earlier hunt for deer meat is cliched (with a rough, jump cut-laden, shaky documentary style). In other words, Ross proves he is not an inspired director of action (remember, he previously directed the wholesome and straight-forward Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, from 1998 and 2003 respectively).
The indulgence in establishing Haymitch carries over to other characters, only their purposes remain enigmatic for the uninitiated. For example, who exactly is Effie Trinket and what does she do, other than wear grotesque 1940s-inspired skirt suits? Introduced as a villain at the Reaping, she appears to be part of District 12’s trusted team. But there is no explanation or demonstration as to why or how she can make this transition. Moreover, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) doesn’t have a clearly defined role, either. I assume that he’s merely a stylist, choosing for Katniss dresses that shoot fiery flames out of their skirts (so that she comes across as both dangerous and, well, hot). Apparently, Kravitz’s casting in this part angered many die-hard fans of the books, because he doesn’t physically conform to the Cinna of their imaginations. Meaning: they were disappointed that Cinna is played by a black man. Since Cinna is given so little to do, I don’t understand how anyone could get upset by that. If anything, the filmmakers should have cast someone who can act. Of course, one solution to this problem (that Cinna needn’t have even appeared in the film), however, is impossible: Cinna, in order to appease the fans, just has to be there.
Speaking of dresses that “light” up, let’s discuss the schizophrenic production and costume designs. As I previously mentioned, District 12 is so depressed as to be imprisoned in another century. When Effie, so far the only blatant anachronism in District 12, escorts Katniss and Peeta onto the bullet train, we ogle the 1930s interior design of the space, which coincidentally is one of the best sets. Side note: it is telling that they don’t fly to the Capitol, for the train is historically a potent symbol for modernity. Unsurprisingly, it literally transports them to another era. And what do we find at the Capitol upon arrival? As you peer through the poor visual effects, trying to make sense of the setting, you glimpse traces of Washington, DC (there’s a Mall with a reflecting pool) and vaguely neo-classical postmodern architecture. Honestly, it looks like a fascistic version of any and all representations of the mythic underwater civilization Atlantis (and maybe the Bahamian resort, too). The hordes of people gathered to watch live TV interviews are clearly dressed to go to a rave, decked out as they are with neon-colored clothes and hairstyles. There may have been glow sticks, I can’t be sure. One of the Games commentators/TV interviewers, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), wears glittery suits and purple hair pulled up into a ponytail. Since everyone looks utterly ridiculous (and has an incredibly stupid name), it’s difficult to take the proceedings seriously, and the routinely oppressed’s struggle isn’t all that palpable. The filmmakers exaggerate both the built environment and the “bizarre” fashions of Panem’s citizens so as to link the inauthenticity of this world to our own celebrity-obsessed and reality TV-centric culture. From an intellectual standpoint, I get it. But as it is executed, it comes across as pained, heavy-handed, and too self-conscious. As if to say, Just look at how horrible these people are. You know, we’re not that much different… There’s nothing wrong with this message, but I’m afraid that because it is so over-the-top yet matter-of-fact, it produces a lot of noise and very little contemplation in the pandered-to viewer.
Despite the book being billed as a treatise on the horrific violence of war, which we send our innocent children to fight in the spirit of freedom (talk about a paradox), the film only spends the last hour or so of the 142-minute running time depicting the Games. (Collins is often reported as saying that the juxtaposition of TV channels showcasing young people alternately competing on a reality TV show or fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the story.) Instead, so much of it is devoted to the players’ Reaping, training, gaining of sponsorships (I still don’t understand how they work), and winning the audience’s favor. Again, Collins, Ross, and co. highlight how unreal (our) reality TV is through Haymitch’s packaging Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers for the media, especially as we learn about it the same way that Katniss does: watching Peeta confess to Casear Flickerman that winning the Games would be a bittersweet victory. For surviving would mean that his crush would have to have died. For much of the film, they can barely tolerate each other. Katniss holds a grudge against Peeta because he once threw a loaf of bread into the mud as she sat starved nearby in the rain. He resents that she’s a more highly ranked player (scoring 11 out of ten points) and that everyone pays more attention to her. Despite their differences, they support each other during the Battle in the Woods, and in the end, they perform their roles as younger lovers for the pervasive cameras. It’s just, are they only keeping up appearances or do they fall for it, too? It’s an interesting idea, but the filmmakers expend no energy in developing it except in the second-to-last scene when they both enjoy a hero’s welcome (I’ll get to how that’s possible in a moment) and she finds her friend/boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), out in the crowd. The expression on her face reads: “Oh shit, I forgot about him.” (And it’s easy to see why: this character consists of so little, he only watches the soap opera that is Katniss and Peeta’s romance unfold on TV and thus exists to make it harder for Katniss and Peeta to really become lovers.)
The movie’s PG-13 rating is really no indication that The Hunger Games tones down the violence implicit in its central conceit. Besides, similarly rated films with graphic displays of violence also get past the censors at the MPAA (language and sexuality are the real sticking points, and that’s a discussion for another time). I don’t seek out film reviews, but since his write-up was sent to my inbox as part of a daily roundup of entertainment news articles that I subscribe to, I read David Edelstein’s, originally published in New York. Horrified that the on-screen carnage of kids killing kids didn’t visibly “devastate” the hungry audience of which he was a part, Edelstein attacks director Gary Ross for framing the children’s inevitable deaths with “restraint” and “tastefulness” (as if that’s commendable!), which according to him, Ross has been praised for doing. I agree with Edelstein to an extent (the editing is fast and uncontemplative), but I still found the brutality of the participants profoundly unsettling: like, for instance, the way one girl shoots Katniss’s attacker in the back with a bow and arrow from far away, not out of solidarity but because killing him is merely a means to an end (killing Katniss).
More than this, The Hunger Games falls short of producing an effective commentary on war. The filmmakers fail to develop any of the Games participants other than Katniss and Peeta (with the lone exception of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, who comes to Katniss’s aid in the beginning before being snuffed out herself). And since we can’t even grieve for the fallen children-soldiers, you might ask, What is the point? Really, all we’re capable of, in Edelstein’s words, is this: “When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that the good guys have one less adversary, but we rarely go, ‘Yes!‘” The greatest missed opportunity in this regard involves the character Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who scowls at everyone during training and basks in the glory he has inherited from previous champions who overwhelmingly hail from his District (1). Cato has been gearing up for the event seemingly all his life, and in the end, before he falls back onto the ground to be ravaged by demonic dog-like creatures, he hints to the spectator that he has a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as he indignantly whines, “Killing is all I know!” So just before he falls, we can reflect that he’s been robbed of a proper childhood and is subsequently doomed. The worst of it all is that this is the full extent of the filmmakers’ engagement with the subject of how being trained or programmed to kill has wrecked their psyches. Pitiful.
But of course they’re doomed. That’s the exact point of this exercise and the dramatic irony of the oft-spoken motto, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Because beyond manipulating diegetic viewers’ emotions with stories about Katniss’s sacrificing herself to protect her sister or Peeta’s heretofore unconfessed love for Katniss, the producer of the Games, Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), influences the actions of the participants as if he were a film director (he certainly carries himself like Michael Bay). When Katniss hides out in an unpopulated corner of the playing field, he burns it down so that she runs toward those who are out to get her. The dogs that eat up Cato spontaneously appear thanks to Seneca’s puppet-mastering; he wants to up the tension and kill off Katniss if he can. Most of all, he approves of an explicit rule-change after riots break out in the predominantly black District 2 following Rue’s (televised) death: two people can win the Games so long as they are on the same team. He later rescinds the offer once Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left standing. And here’s where my dad’s rabbi supposedly spoiled the plot: the so-called lovers vow to take their lives rather than follow the renewed rules of the old game. Fearing more reprisals, Seneca allows them to be dually victorious. The scenes which demonstrate how Man has overtaken Nature through computer programming and how Katniss and Peeta repeatedly challenge the rule of law at the Games are of a piece with the central message of The Hunger Games and probably constitute its finest expression: re-evaluate the truthfulness of “reality TV.”
One of the greatest unresolved mysteries of the film is the prize that the winner(s) receive(s). Obviously, living to see another day is rewarding in and of itself, but what do they gain otherwise? Fame? Fortune? At the victory ceremony held at the Capitol, the president of the totalitarian regime, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), crowns Katniss, thereby complementing the beauty pageant-like interviews she endured earlier in the picture before the Fight to the Death commenced. Paradoxically, when she returns to District 12 triumphant, she doesn’t reunite with Primrose. (Instead, we see her look out onto Gale, confused.) As a melodrama studies scholar, I couldn’t believe that the filmmakers failed to include such a scene. If we can’t see Primrose embrace her virtuous older sister and perennial protector, then what is the point of her sacrifice anyway? Everyone, including Primrose, knows what is at stake.
This brings me to my final point. Much has been made about Katniss Everdeen as a feminist icon. Writing of the novels, Lauren Osborn of the online zine Vaginaclaims that, “Katniss—as a fiercely independent, loyal, and capable young woman—stands as a symbol of feminism in modern literature.” I guess she would if your only point of comparison is Bella Swan from the Twilight YA series. In her examination of this year’s female film characters (women and girls alike), Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday praisesThe Hunger Games for being one of the satisfying “girl-powered fantasies” to come out recently (on the other hand, she’s disappointed that adult women are not represented as strong or compelling as their younger female counterparts). In my opinion, Katniss isn’t so much a feminist warrior as she is an amalgamation of different idealized femininities. She’s maternal, as she volunteers for the Games to spare her sister from a 100% certain death and mourns the younger Rue. (Later, Rue’s District 2 partner Thresh, played by Dayo Okeniyi, stops short of killing Katniss out of respect for her honoring Rue in death.) Despite her attitude toward the government and the Games, which she thinks makes her totally unlikable, Katniss wins over everyone because of her beauty. That flame-throwing dress works wonders. And if you think her skill with a bow and arrow makes her decidedly unfeminine, think again: she’s an archetypal Amazonian. Romance may not be a priority for Katniss, as Osborn argues, but she is nevertheless at the center of a love triangle, and neither suitor deserves her. Such is always the case.
I give the filmmakers credit for not belaboring how The Hunger Games continues into the sequel Catching Fire. (I swear, everyone is in a tizzy about who will direct it and who will play additional characters with unbelievably ridiculous names.) The scene of Katniss and Peeta’s heroes’ welcome is cut between Seneca’s forced suicide (punishment for having failed to keep the Games under control) and President Snow’s sorrowful glance down on the Capitol from a balcony on high. The film fades to black after he turns his back and steps into the building, subtly portending his downfall. I don’t know much about the other two novels, but I assume that Katniss will lead a revolution against Snow’s highly structured Reign of Terror. Perhaps future installments will be more action-packed and ultimately less boring. Perhaps there will be more to the characters’ social interactions besides a “will-they-or-won’t-they” storyline, preferably along the lines of race and class, which The Hunger Games sets up but barely engages. What I’m saying is, perhaps viewers who have not read the books will be given a reason to give a damn. But I’m not holding my breath.
The heartwarming family drama Big Miracle (Ken Kwapis, 2012), about a heroic whale rescue, is the last movie in which I suspected I would find virtually no glaring flaws. It’s certainly not perfect—it has an unnecessary romantic ending and it is a little slow—but I was definitely impressed with its expansive yet tight script. Here’s a quick rundown of its attributes; there are some spoilers ahead.
It’s a stupid title (the original, working title is the equally bad Everybody Loves Whales), but it teaches a valuable lesson for everyone, children and adults alike: not only is it possible to do the impossible, but it’s best if you try through collaboration, even with people whose ideologies you don’t share. Big Miracle is a dramatization of Operation Breakthrough, the 1988 exercise in international relations that saw the United States and the Soviet Union team up to break free a family of three California gray whales who found themselves trapped in a hole in the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, five miles away from the open ocean.
Actually, what impressed me most about Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s screenplay (based on Tom Rose’s nonfiction book Freeing the Whales) was how they managed to incorporate so many perspectives on the event. If I’m not mistaken, these voices include those of the native Inupiat people who worship, eat, and communicate with whales; an incredibly determined but arrogant Greenpeace worker; an evil capitalist from a large oil-drilling company who joins the effort in pursuit of some good PR; the parasitic TV news media in search of a good story and to further their own careers on a temporary national stage; a pair of well-meaning Midwestern inventor-opportunists; a member of President Reagan’s staff, who hopes the story will ensure a favorable legacy for the President as well as an effective quick-start for Vice President George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign; a colonel from the National Guard, who aims to crack hundreds of miles of ice by pulling the oil-man’s barge with helicopters, but soon gets stuck; and a Soviet-manned icebreaker ship that swoops in to save the day—just in time.
Phew! Did you get all that? It’s ambitious, and it works. It might even cohere better than all the narrative strands of Steven Soderbergh’s apocalyptic horror story Contagion (2011). However, I wish the filmmakers hadn’t inserted a subplot involving the former lovers Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), the local TV news reporter who breaks the story, and Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), the dogmatic “pain-in-the-ass” from Greenpeace. So much of their interaction throughout the film is absent of romantic yearning and desire (they have more pressing concerns) that their reconciliation in the end seems forced.
The script and the performances convincingly relate the isolation of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the United States, as well as the inhospitable climate for the many outsiders who descend upon the small town, including the gray whales, affectionately named Fred, Wilma, and Bamm Bamm after the animated, prehistoric Flintstones family. (Since the baby whale is a male, they opt not to dub him Pebbles and look to the Rubbles clan for inspiration.) Despite this chilly environment, Point Barrow is warmly rendered, its representation hinging on the connection that Adam has with a young Inupiat boy, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), who longs to leave the community but through this experience learns the value of his culture, thanks to his intuitive grandfather Malik (John Pingayak), who’s also a community elder. More than this, Point Barrow is kinda quirky, a spiritual twin city of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana, featured in the splendid Parks and Recreation (2009-present). For instance, the only restaurant in town is called Amigos, a Mexican cantina that serves as the base of operations for many different interest groups when they are away from the site. It’s touching that its name reminds people of the importance of friendship.
Big Miracle is ostensibly a family film in the vein of Dolphin Tale (Charles Martin Smith, 2011). While there isn’t anything really objectionable (although, I’m sorry to report, Bamm Bamm doesn’t survive, and Sarah Palin makes a “cameo” at the end in some portentous archive footage), the film may be too heady for some children. Since it focuses so much on the seemingly impossible political and bureaucratic maneuvering everyone engages in, I imagine that some youngsters may get bored or frustrated. Not to mention, it also sports an appropriately cynical view of the media, as Los Angeles reporter-on-the-rise Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) seizes the opportunity to climb the broadcast news ladder to the top by sensationalizing people’s emotions. It’s also upsetting that Adam, smitten with Jill, doesn’t fight to continue reporting on the story he broke nationwide and submits to playing cameraman for Jill before he eventually rejects her editorial style.
The special effects, specifically in the underwater scenes, are definitely more than acceptable, but I am embarrassed to say that I have no idea how they shot those scenes of the whales with their heads above water. In other words, did the filmmakers use real whales? Or did they use mechanical ones, evidently ignoring the lessons Steven Spielberg and co. learned on the set of 1975’s Jaws? (I kid, I kid. I’m sure technologies have advanced so much in the last thirty-seven years that special effects artists know how to work with or around the challenges that water poses to giant synthetic props.)
Well, I’m pleasantly surprised that I haven’t spoiled the entire movie. I recommend Big Miracle in spite of its ridiculous title. It’s funny and sad—perhaps a little too precious—but it’s altogether human.