The Academy Award nominations were announced Tuesday, and I had three immediate reactions to the slate of best picture nominees:
1. Where was “The Death of Stalin”?
2. Seriously, have you seen “The Death of Stalin”? It’s amazing, and Jason Isaacs is absolutely hysterical in it, and I don’t understand. Was this an eligibility thing because it was released in Britain in 2017 or something?!
3. Huh, a lot of the actual best picture nominees are about political leadership.
Let’s focus on that last point, lest the entire rest of this column be devoted to the miracle that is a black comedy about the death of a despot.
Earlier this month I watched “Vice” and “The Favourite” back to back. The parallels between the two films are strong. The trailers for both were deceptive; they suggest arch comedies when the films themselves are much darker. Both have towering lead performances. Christian Bale basically is Dick Cheney, mastering his vocal intonations and speech patterns in ways that I had forgotten. Olivia Colman added unexpected pathos to Queen Anne, a role that easily could have descended into caricature.
Both films also try to address what the pursuit of power does to ambitious people, but I am not sure either film succeeds on that score. Part of the problem is the cynicism shot through both films. Neither movie suggests a purpose for political leadership higher than the pursuit of power. Both Emma Stone’s Abigail and Rachel Weisz’s Lady Sarah compete for the affections of Anne to be able to wield influence behind the throne. After Abigail ultimately triumphs, she is portrayed as wanting little more than to satisfy her every indulgence. At least the leaders of Parliament are given reasons for their support or opposition to the war in France. We do not hear much on that from the three leads, however.
In “Vice,” the message is that all Cheney wants is power itself. As my fellow Galactic Empire historian and Post colleague Sonny Bunch noted, “He is depicted as amoral, craving nothing but power — literally heartless.” This is highlighted in an early scene in the film, set during the Ford administration, when Cheney asks his superior Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carrell) what they, as Republicans, believe in. Rumsfeld responds by cackling loudly as if it’s an absurd question.
This is an odd gambit. In his political career, Dick Cheney was a staunch conservative who moderated almost nothing but his tone of voice. Cheney is fair game for his actions during the George W. Bush administration, but accusing him of being amoral — as opposed to being driven by, say, the shock of Sept. 11 or his severely conservative worldview — seems off. The film instead focuses on his Machiavellian grasp over the levers of bureaucracy during the Bush 43 years. This is a fascinating subject, but on screen it makes it seem like the rest of the Bush Cabinet was a bunch of knaves, fools and innocents. The truth is far messier.
Oddly enough, the best picture nominee that has the best grasp on the relationship between power and purpose is also the most fictional — “Black Panther.” As Eric Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan has a legitimate beef with the Wakandan power structure. When he takes over, he proposes to convert the kingdom’s latent power into a vast empire upon which “the sun will never set.” Killmonger forces T’Challa to recognize the problematic nature of Wakanda’s past and what should be done about it to preserve the legitimacy of the throne. The main point of the film is for T’Challa to decide what kind of king he will be, given Wakandan technological superiority. It’s an interesting film about foreign policy.
Of course, if there were any justice, this column would also discuss “The Death of Stalin” and the other glaring omission from the best picture category, the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” We often think about the exercise of leadership as requiring the raw exercise of coercion, but this is a myopic view of how power works. The documentary contains a stunning scene in which Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate and actually persuades a skeptical senator to change his mind and authorize funding for PBS.
That is the kind of leadership that would be nice to see more of in the 21st century.