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Opinion What the 2020 Oscar nominations tell us about white men

George MacKay in “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes. (François Duhamel/AP)

This post discusses the plots of “Jojo Rabbit” and “The Irishman.”

It’s been a long time since I trusted the Academy Awards to determine the best movies and performances from the previous year. But for all their considerable limitations, the 2020 Oscar nominations released on Monday do have a fair amount to say about one of the most consequential and combustible subjects facing us today: white men.

Six of the nine movies nominated for best picture — “1917,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “The Irishman,” “Joker,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — are almost entirely about men, and a seventh, “Marriage Story,” is substantially concerned with masculinity. That the Academy voters’ preferences are so narrow, especially in a year with plenty of other alternatives, is a shame for them and for their industry, in so much that Oscar nominations can help actors land future parts and directors land the financing and distribution for their next projects. But given the power men wield and the damage they can do, sorting masculinity out is a worthy artistic endeavor.

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The fact that “Joker,” Todd Phillips’s inconsistent and superficially serious movie about the mentally ill Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) transformation from victim to villain, got more nominations than any other movie released in 2019, is silly — especially in a year when HBO’s radical superhero story “Watchmen” exists. But the fact that it did so well illustrates a persistent tension in the way we talk about troubled white men who vent their rage in spasms of violence. What happens when the desire to diagnose rage and violence in the name of prevention tips over into an inappropriate sympathy for those who lash out in an attempt to reshape the world according to their own wishes? For its entire runtime, “Joker” wobbles along that tightrope. That it doesn’t navigate this path better is Phillips’s failure as a director; that we haven’t figured out how to talk about violent white men in a more clear-eyed way is a measure of our failure as a society.

Sorting out what makes men do bad things is simultaneously emotionally wearing and an important thing to do if we want to make everyone else safer. It’s also only half the conversation. That’s why “1917,” “Ford v Ferrari” and “The Irishman,” all movies about men trying, and in some cases failing, to be good, are so much more interesting than “Joker.”

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“Ford v Ferrari,” like “Joker,” features an outsider who believes that a corrupt system treats him unfairly and ignores his ideals. Unlike “Joker,” though, “Ford v Ferrari” places test driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) in conversation with driver and car developer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a racing industry insider. The resulting movie is a debate about compromise and purity, and an argument that the push and pull between them is necessary to actually achieve greatness. “Ford v Ferrari” is simultaneously a glorious guy fantasy about sexy cars and a grounded and sympathetic argument for growing up.

In a related way, “The Irishman” makes the slow but devastating case that what’s left after the spasm of violence is over is, simply, nothing. Mafia hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) derives his identity from his relationships with powerful men in the mafia and Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). But while Frank doesn’t seem to care very much about most of the people he takes out of this world, he’s devastated when the person he loves most, his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), decides to remove herself from Frank’s life as a statement of disgust for his murderous profession.

The movie plays as if director Martin Scorsese wanted to underline the point for all of his fans who were in it for the violence. This path doesn’t end with the main character becoming some sort of glamorous supervillain, but with him as a disabled, abandoned old man waiting in line at a bank for a glimpse of a daughter who refuses to speak to him.

The young hero of Taika Waititi’s best-picture-nominated Holocaust comedy “Jojo Rabbit” arguably suffers greater tragedies, including losing his mother to Nazi executioners. But at least he benefits from an earlier moral awakening than Sheeran’s, rejecting Hitlerism when he still has time to grow up to be a good man.

And Lance Corporal Schofield, played with wonderful sensitivity and stoicism by George MacKay in “1917,” shows us what a good man looks like in action. Sent on a suicidal mission to stop English troops from marching themselves into a German trap, Schofield and a fellow soldier show themselves to be the inverse of Fleck’s self-pity and Sheeran’s decision to outsource his morality to others. The idea of duty is so out of fashion in both art and politics that Schofield and “1917” manage to make it seem fresh while also demonstrating just what it costs to live up to an ideal.

It would be nice if the Academy voters and the people who make the movies they judge were as interested in the inner lives of women, people of color and people who aren’t American or British as they are in white men. Maybe the only way that will happen is if people who have traditionally been on the outside get the ability to cause as much trouble as the white men who so often end up at the center of the story. Until then, the Academy could do worse than to nominate movies that at least show some skepticism about men, instead of taking their heroism and morality for granted.

Read more:

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Alyssa Rosenberg: Thanks, Hollywood white guys. But your work isn’t finished yet.

Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘Joker’ wants you to choose between provocation and prudishness. It’s not a hard decision.

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