Column: The Politics of the Oscars

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday February 19, 2008

It’s always dangerous to read too much into trends in popular culture. Nonetheless, there seems to be a strong relationship between the five movies nominated for best picture of 2007 and polls showing 67 percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction. 

Except for Juno, a compelling Indie film that asks us to believe a pregnant 16-year-old is the smartest person in town, all of the Oscar nominees are relentlessly grim. Atonement follows the downward trajectory of a love affair undermined by the vengeful imagination of a besotted ingénue. Michael Clayton takes us inside the life of a marginal corporate attorney struggling to maintain his integrity while he salvages his law firm’s defense of a multinational corporation accused of knowingly causing the deaths of hundreds of small farmers. And then the going gets really bleak. 

No Country for Old Men follows a West Texas loner who absconds with drug money and is tracked by a psychopathic hit man. (As was true with last year’s winner, The Departed, the suspense is whether any character we care about will be left alive at the end of the movie.) Finally, There Will Be Blood tracks the disintegration of an oil prospector who loses his soul as his wealth increases. 

Three of these films conclude that the universe provides no justice. A fourth, Michael Clayton, takes the position that justice is at best a haphazard occurrence. Only in Juno does the audience get the sense of a well-ordered world and that’s from the perspective of a pregnant 16-year-old. 

It’s not as if these movies are unrepresentative of Hollywood, in general. 2007’s highest grossing films included Spider Man III, the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Bourne Ultimatum, 300, and I am Legend. Of the top 10 films only Shrek III and The Simpson Movie would be classified as light-hearted. And a year ago, the candidates for the Oscar included Babel, The Departed, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen; the first three were also extraordinarily grim. 

If you subscribe to the theory that popular culture reflects the national psyche, then as you watch the five films nominated for this year’s Oscar, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Americans are dejected. Indeed, most of the novels we read and the programs we watch on TV support this judgment. In 2007 the plot of the average bestseller was “a killer stalks the streets” and the most popular TV series was “Lost,” where 71 survivors of a plane crash are marooned on a desert island and continually threatened by malevolent entities. 

The common theme in our books, movies, and TV programs seems to be that Americans live in a universe where the rules no longer make sense. In this grim new world, success is not determined by hard work and perseverance, but rather by random factors such as who you know, where you were born, and whether your number comes up in the lottery. Meanwhile, as we trudge through this inhospitable terrain, we believe we are constantly in terrible danger: death and destruction can happen at any minute and there is little that can save us except perhaps a super hero, the Virgin Mary, or a sagacious pregnant 16-year-old. 

One interpretation of our mythic malaise is that it’s a natural byproduct of the culture of fear ruthlessly inculcated by the Bush administration after 9/11. For more than six years their relentless message has been “the barbarians are storming the gates and there is nothing you can do about it except trust Dubya and pray for the rapture.” The prevalence of this culture of fear explains the popularity of movies like I Am Legend, where the narrative concerns a ravaged New York beset by insatiable zombies, a culture so inhospitable there’s little the average person can do but run for the hills. 

There’s an additional interpretation of America’s angst. At the same time we have been rendered numb by fear, the public has lost confidence in our economic system. At one time Americans believed if we worked hard and played by the rules, we would inevitably improve our lives and those of our children; in any event, we felt certain that at the end of our days we would accomplish a dignified retirement—if we were sick or infirm, we would be cared for. Now many of us fear for the future: the average American believes things are getting worse rather than better; we regret the world we are bequeathing to our children; and we fear what will happen to us in our old age. In place of the myth of the benevolent community we find ourselves marooned in an inhospitable landscape, continually threatened by malevolent entities. 

Who should we blame? According to Hollywood, the fault lies with American adults. What’s the solution? Juno for president. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at