"People need dramatic examples. . . . As a man I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting." That's a line spoken by Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, the first film in the trilogy that concluded last year with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. In the past year, symbolic presentations of good and evil ruled at the box office. The list of 2012's top-grossing films leads off with The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games; and The Hobbit, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Brave are all in the top ten. That is not surprising; fantasy films of various sorts have dominated the box office for the last decade. What is surprising is that there is less of a gap than in many years between these highest-grossing films and the group of films nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars. Six of the nine nominees have grossed at least $100 million in domestic box office. And, strikingly and perhaps not merely coincidentally, they feature credible stories of heroic struggles against daunting odds and in the face of formidable malevolent threats.
Particularly noteworthy on the fantasy side are the success of Peter Jackson's versions of Tolkien's stories and the continuing popularity of Nolan's refashioning of the Batman myth. Although the loosely structured plot and the imprudent use of amped-up 3-D made The Hobbit a much less impressive bit of filmmaking than any installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, its success indicates the enduring allure of Tolkien's magical universe, with its cosmic battle between good and evil. In his trilogy, Nolan did something remarkable, which was to invest the Batman myth with philosophical gravity and to create a neo-noir city, Gotham, in which corruption is pervasive and the dividing line between good and evil characters is uncertain. Yet Bruce Wayne/Batman continues to believe that "Gotham is not beyond redemption." And Nolan managed to end on a surprisingly hopeful note, the literary inspiration for which was Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.
As impressive as is the success of these superhero fantasy films, they do not fill a gap that has loomed large in Hollywood for many years, namely, the production of hopeful stories featuring ordinary Americans facing difficulties and responding with resilience and virtue. But this year, the list of nominated films in the category of Best Picture is replete with such stories. Setting aside Amour, a fine foreign film, Life of Pi, a story about an Indian boy's quest for God, and Les Misérables, Victor Hugo's classic tale of damnation and redemption, the remaining films – Django Unchained, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty — are all American stories about struggle, hope, and in most cases victory.
Now, the absence of superheroes in this list of nominated films does not mean that we have left fantasy entirely behind; in particular, Beasts and Pi are fantasies that feature children coming to terms with familial loss and horror, and both celebrate the imaginative resources and resilience of their main characters. Silver Linings, the weakest of the nominated films, is unlike many of the others in that it is neither a fantasy nor a film rooted in dramatic historical events. Yet it too is an optimistic, if highly predictable, story about disaster and despair averted, a contemporary love story in the midst of often humorous family dysfunction.
According to most prognosticators, the top contenders for best picture are Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty, with Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, having the greatest momentum in recent weeks. Lincoln is a remarkable achievement, with an epic sweep and numerous memorable scenes; it also deserves credit for creating high drama out of legislative wrangling over a constitutional amendment. And it manages to achieve a difficult balance in the depiction of Lincoln, who is at once regal and an everyman. But it is often ponderous and not nearly as entertaining as the other contenders. Argo, about the 1979–80 Iranian hostage crisis, is the slightest of the three, but it is an entrancing film with understated performances that serve, rather than get in the way of, the storytelling.
To my mind, however, both are inferior to Zero Dark Thirty. Of the many — far too many — films approaching the three-hour mark in viewing time, only Zero merits its length. The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it astonishingly manages to sustain a high level of suspense even though everyone knows the outcome.
Zero has a highly intelligent script that doesn't make concessions to audience ignorance. It assumes not just that we know who KSM is but also that we can supply the background to the various terrorist attacks between 9/11 and the killing of bin Laden. The occasional depiction of these attacks makes it clear that the hunt for bin Laden was the result not of a lingering fascination with a cold case but of a desire for justice and the need to contain an ongoing threat.
All three of these films focus on the exercise and role of American political power in situations of duress. Argo and Zero both make the CIA look good, and Lincoln borders on celebrating an imperial presidency.
All three have been accused of historical inaccuracy, but Zero has come under the most fire. Its original release date, just before the election, heightened suspicions among Republicans that it would be a Hollywood celebration of President Obama's success in finding and killing bin Laden. Yet Obama shows up in the film only once, on a TV screen, as he is being interviewed about interrogation techniques; in the course of the interview he promises to eliminate torture and restore America's moral stature in the world. Sitting in the room while the broadcast is being shown, the leaders of the hunt barely take notice of the president.
Since its release, the film has been the focus of a rather intense debate about the role of torture in the film and in the actual gathering of the intelligence that led to bin Laden's death. At the same time, the massacres last year in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., have reignited the debate not just about gun control but also about what role violent movies play in contributing to a culture of violence. An often-unasked question is whether the glut of media, film, and video-game violence, much of it senseless and a means of mere entertainment, makes it more difficult for filmmakers who might want to sensitize us to certain forms of physical violence or who at least might not want to compete in the directorial oneupmanship that passes for novelty in many of our bloodiest films.
Zero does a decent job of making viewers feel uneasy about torture. The images of torture in the film are at times graphic, though the violence falls far short of what one finds in, say, Tarantino's Django Unchained — one of the nominated films — or in any of the Batman films, or even the latest Die Hard. The focus is instead on psychological humiliation. Yet, this is also a world in which there are ongoing and potentially devastating threats to innocent civilians and in which interrogators have good reason to suspect that some detainees have relevant information. One wonders whether the dilemma even registers with viewers accustomed to a stream of blood-soaked films.
The most memorable feature of Zero is the performance of Jessica Chastain as Maya, the indefatigable CIA officer whose singular goal in life is to find bin Laden, an ambition that persists over many years, through many dead-end clues, and often against the judgment of colleagues and superiors. Hers is a heroic quest for justice that — to her mind — involves nothing more than doing the job she has been assigned.
Zero acknowledges a hunger among ordinary citizens for inspiring stories — in the words of Bruce Wayne, for dramatic examples and symbols. The pervasiveness of such stories, their popularity, and their critical acclaim is one of the unremarked stories of the year in film, 2012.