It's once again time for the Oscars, and two films up for Best Movie of the Year, both about the nation's past, do an uncanny job of reflecting the current state of America: Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. While I was awed by both films, I'm rooting for Lincoln -- and here's why. Zero Dark Thirty is an amazing film. How director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and her team put this story together is beyond me. In many respects, the movie is about the sheer dexterity -- might I even argue, the effectiveness -- of our CIA and special ops forces. Some would say the film is a celebration of American prowess. And yet the movie is also about brute, unmitigated force, torture, the hunt, and settling scores.
Lincoln also deals with the ugliness of war and death. But the core message is fundamentally about hope. In the film, President Lincoln seeks not to settle scores, but to reconcile differences. He loathes and deeply laments the effects of brutal force, even as he must exercise it. He wishes the conflict would end before another individual loses his or her life. And yet, he is no pushover or pacifier; he does not bury his head in the sand and seek to deny the unrelenting realities that grip the nation.
Truth be told, both films depict different faces of reality, whatever our own political views about how to deal with such realities (for me, such torture is a non-starter). None of us can wish away evil no more than we can stop breathing. Conflict has forever been part of the human condition. Force has always been a response (often a necessary one) to evil and conflict. None of this means we have to like or condone any of this, but when we deny the presence of such societal conditions we risk joining in a march of folly.
These two films, when taken together, offer glimpses into competing narratives about our country moving forward. One celebrates our ability to destroy; the other to build. One is about doing anything possible to find the weakness in people; the other, to find people's hidden strengths. One is about stopping at nothing; the other is about searching for limits.
One is about closing off paths to those who would hurt us, while the other is about bringing those who have hurt one another together to find a new path forward.
It is the struggle to create something better in Lincoln that I am so drawn to. About how people can seek to move forward together, notwithstanding their differences. About what it means to hold an abiding faith in our nation, even given its many troubles. It is about our ability to reclaim the better parts of ourselves amid our human stains.
Lincoln is about making a more perfect union, when we ourselves are forever imperfect.
Do you see any similar stories in this year’s Oscar nominees?