Movie Review

2017 Best Picture Nominees

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Warning: this article contains spoilers, especially for the movies Arrival and Manchester by the Sea. Continue at your own risk.

I watched a bit of the Oscars last night, although I went to bed before the Best Picture kerfuffle. Usually I don't see many movies that are nominated for best picture; for the last three years, it's been two each. For some reason, this year I'd seen five. Here are some thoughts.

La La Land: The music and dancing and such were delightful, but I'm not sure that the movie deserved to be nominated for best picture. Quick synopsis: Emma Stone (best actress winner) is an aspiring actress; Ryan Gosling is a jazz musician who wants to open his own club. They fall in love, but come to the point where they need to decide if their relationship is more important than their individual dreams.

A writer friend loved it, saying it was an illustration of what you have to sacrifice for your art. And Alicia Cohn on compared it to the holiness of our Christian calling and how the only relationship with comparable weight is the one we have with Christ.

That would be true, but. At the point in their relationship where the characters have to make that choice, they are together. They're living together and have been for several months. I know this gets into the sticky business of "What constitutes marriage?" and "Hey, this is a secular* film and you can't expect characters in a movie to live by Christian standards." And even that it's hard to mesh a new relationship with an old dream. I totally get that. From a Christian standpoint, however, it rang a little icky. Leaving a committed relationship to strive for worldly goals instead of acknowledging the commitment and continuing to work together? Maybe it just struck too close to home because I got married instead of continuing in the Air Force. Maybe it's a cautionary tale to show you shouldn't get too serious in a relationship until you're sure of what you want. And once you are serious, realize you're going to spend the rest of your life making sacrifices and finding new dreams to follow together.

Hidden Figures: The story of the African American women who performed high-level math for the fledgling space race is well known now, but nearly unheard of two years ago. Taraji Henson was subdued but fierce as mathematician Katherine Johnson. Octavia Spencer was like a stalking lion as Dorothy Vaughan, the supervisor who clandestinely trained her team to program NASA's new computers. And Janelle Monae...her portrayal of Mary Jackson, the woman who had to fight the culture to be recognized as an engineer, was way too convicting to me with the unused engineering degree. All three of these women made such sacrifices that I and the other women in STEM fields benefited from greatly. I was glad to learn whom it was I owed.

The movie takes place in Virginia in 1961, in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. The women had to deal with racism at work, sexism at home, the hope of a better future, and the desire to keep both their kids and their jobs safe. They did so by working hard and being very good at what they did. When they did react to the injustices, it was gently — the Fruit of the Spirit gentleness that comes out of the strength of being right and a desire to help others see the truth of things and be better people (Galatians 5:22-23).

The movie illustrated that there are different ways to protest; some are loud and public, and some are quiet, but both are necessary. Sometimes the best way to protest is to do your job and help others along their way. It takes an incredible strength to lead from behind, knowing you're right and the world is unjust, and I don't think it was happenstance that it was women who were so adroit at this. Mark Rylance, in his lead-up to the best supporting actress award (Viola Davis, Fences) said "sometimes, the most supportive thing is to oppose." He added, "Something that women seem to be better at than men: opposing without hatred" (Proverbs 15:1).

Arrival: Amy Adams's character Louise Banks goes through her day as a linguistics professor quietly, nearly unemotionally, even as alien pods descend on a startled earth. She is chosen by the US Army to accompany them to Montana to try to communicate with the new guests — things like "Who are you?" "Where are you from?" and "Are you going to kill us all?" She quickly realizes they can understand each other better using written language rather than vocal, and goes about analyzing and interpreting their writing, which looks like a circle with various spikes depending on the meaning.

The film is based on the belief espoused by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf who asserted that language determines how we think. For instance, ancient Greek with all its prefixes and suffixes and roots would be more amenable to scientific discovery and philosophical investigation than a simpler and less flexible language. In Arrival, the aliens need humans to understand their language because their language develops neural pathways so that beings can access all the points in their individual timeline. In three-thousand years, humans will need this skill to help the aliens in the war they have pre-seen.

Throughout Louise's time with the aliens, she has regular flashbacks of her life with her daughter, who died of a terrible congenital disease as a young teen. But as Louise comes to fully understand the alien language, we realize that they weren't flashbacks; they were flash-forwards. Her marriage to and divorce from her daughter's father; and her daughter's birth, life, suffering, and death; are all yet to come. She knows what will happen in her life. As the Army camp breaks up, she hugs Jeremy Renner's physicist, with whom she'd been working. She sees their life together and the fact that he will leave when faced with their daughter's future. But all she says is, "I forgot how good it felt to be held by you."

I thought this spoke powerfully of what Jesus must have gone through. He knew what He was getting into by coming to save us. He knew He would have to face horrible pain and separation from the One He loved the most. But He did it anyway — with grace — for the promise of the good things to come (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Lion: I didn't see the eventual Oscar winner, Moonlight, but while I would have been content to see Arrival or Hidden Figures win, I would have been most happy to see Lion take the award. Like Hidden Figures and Moonlight, it's based on a true story. In 1986, Saroo, a five-year-old boy in northern India, convinces his brother to take him with him as he seeks work a short train ride away. Saroo wakes at the station while his brother is contacting employers and Saroo reboards the train, looking for his brother. The train locks down, and Saroo is taken several days and 1600 km away to Calcutta. He doesn't speak the language, and (as a five-year-old) mispronounces the name of his village. He is lost on the streets of Calcutta, begging for food, and barely — and by the grace of God — escaping traffickers.

A young man finds him and takes him to the police who take him to an orphanage. After being convinced by the social worker that they tried hard to find his mother, he agrees to be placed for adoption with a couple in Tasmania. Twenty years later, having been raised by loving parents, Saroo decides to search for his village and his birth-family.

As an adoptive mother of a brown-skinned boy from another country known for child trafficking, the whole thing got me right in the feels. A five-year-old alone on a train with no water and only an apple core from the floor to eat? Little Saroo begging for food and dodging traffickers on the streets of Calcutta? And think about the pain of his birth-mother and brother!

But the part that really got to me was Nicole Kidman's adoptive mother, Sue. After Saroo, they adopted another young boy who had not been so lucky and had been sold nightly by the orphanage workers. His trauma naturally resulted in coping mechanisms that hurt himself and those around him. Unable to love him to healing, Sue's own health deteriorates. Saroo, who had grown more withdrawn as he obsessed over finding his birth-mother, comes to Sue and apologizes that her infertility meant she couldn't have children with a "clean slate," and had to settle for two boys who had brought wounds and baggage with them.

She quickly corrects him. She could have had children. She and their dad chose not to. They chose Saroo and his adoptive brother because the boys needed homes and parents and the couple had a home to offer them. There was no concern about it being too "hard" because that's not what parenting is about. You parent, and you provide what you can, and even when it's not enough, you keep at it.

People adopt for a lot of different reasons, but for me, it was much like Sue — we had a home and JT didn't, and it just made sense. It hasn't always been easy, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been any easier if we'd had kids naturally. You just love them and parent them as best you can, and that's what you do, no matter where they're from (Luke 10:36-37).

Manchester by the Sea: For something completely different, we come to the year's most depressing movie. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, best actor winner) returns to his hometown to care for his nephew after the passing of his brother who had struggled with a heart condition. The movie follows several months as Lee tries to set his nephew up with an adoptive family, gently guides the teenager toward the right girl, and avoids as many old friends as he can. You learn that Lee had left town after his children had died in a house fire which the townspeople blame him for. It turns out that it was due to his negligence, but there were also extenuating circumstances, so while he was not charged with a crime, he still carries the guilt.

What struck me about the story is that there is no character arc. It's a character study: this is how he is, and this is why he is that way. There's no redemption.** Lee doesn't change except to learn to drink a little less. He's not cruel or unkind, he's just incredibly broken.

That's what makes this film the most subtle Gospel-preaching movie of the year, I think. Not even his ex-wife's forgiveness can reach Lee's heart. Because there is no redemption without God. There is no healing without Christ's forgiveness. This is just as true for the smallest sin as it is for being responsible for the horrific deaths of your children. Without God, there is no hope (John 3:16-17; Romans 6:23).

* Every time I try to type "secular" it comes out "sexular." Every.time.
** For a better story with one-third the F-bombs, see Robert Downey Jr.'s The Judge.
Published 2-27-17