The Official Story (Luis Puenzo, 1985)
My instinct to stand, whenever possible, slightly outside the zeitgeist leads me to look askew at things like the Academy Awards. To my mind, they're a good excuse to have a party (heavily attended, so I can pay that much less attention to the ceremony itself), though I realize they have a certain fleeting cachet that can boost the prospects of a film or a career.
As a metric of quality, however, they're about as worthless as any mass-consensus accolade. I love Oscar-feted films like The Silence of the Lambs and Schindler's List—to name two stopped-clock cases where AMPAS's tastes corresponded to my own—despite and not because of the number of nude gold male statutettes they racked up. (And didn't Jay Sherman already determine that these shiny paperweights-in-waiting are made of chocolate?)
All to say that there are plenty of Oscar-nominated/-winning films, past and present, that I view at my own pace, sometimes far outside their culturally mandated half-life. Whether this provides any clearer understanding of their place in the canon is a point to argue, though experience has taught me time tends to be unkind to movies accorded of-the-moment honors.
A week out from the most recent Academy Awards, I've finally caught up with both this year's Best Picture winner, about which more below, as well as, thirty years late, the Best Foreign Language Film of 1986. Neither is particularly bad. Neither is especially good. I think there are ways, however, in which their mediocrity (how they court genial palatability, despite their inflammatory and enraging subject matter) is interesting to ponder.
The overarching subject of Luis Puenzo's The Official Story is the fallout from the Argentine Dirty War. Between 1974 and 1983, the militarized right-wing government exterminated a number of left-leaning dissidents and their supporters. Families were torn apart, and a number of children, too young to grasp the situation, were kidnapped and placed with families more sympathetic to those in power. Puenzo's film filters these experiences through the character of bourgeois schoolteacher Alicia (Norma Aleandro), introduced singing along to the Argentine national anthem and then shown lecturing a classroom of teenage boys on the importance of history.
Upfront, the film announces its didactic aims—a fair approach. But Alicia's pedantry feels forced and predigested, rather than arising naturally from the situation. It's acted for the audience's benefit, so the movie's honorable perspective and goals can in no way be mistaken. (Not even setting the opening section in a classroom lends it legitimacy.) Alicia is Puenzo's naïve mouthpiece; it's clear her glass-house beliefs about her country and her life will be shattered by story's end. Further complicating the situation is her suspicion that her adopted daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro), is likely a kidnapped child, though Alicia's husband, Roberto (Hector Alterio), changes the subject every time she raises the possibility.
The family scenes are mostly superficial soap opera, with a few exceptions because Puenzo keeps a looser rein on his child actors. There's an excellent sequence in which a magician at Gaby's birthday jabs a long needle toward a dove that he's made appear out of thin air, acting as if he's going to pop the bird like a balloon. The kids's reactions are unguarded, sometimes terrifyingly so; one boy screams with such raw intensity that it feels like Puenzo has inadvertently photographed the moment when a child first becomes aware of death.
That casually captured aside says more about the horrors of societally-sanctioned oppression than almost anything else in the movie. Puenzo—who shot The Official Story just after the military regime crumbled, though still under strenuous and secretive conditions—is trying for a potent mix of emotive melodrama and gritty verisimilitude. He even has his semi-stunned heroine walk in front of an actual protest rally held by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were disappeared by the military regime. Yet in context, the gesture feels shameless, doc-like window dressing in support of a fictional cipher's slow-dawning enlightenment.
A larger problem is that Aleandro, a leading light of the Argentine stage and screen, is all surface, her varied tics and tears never cohering to reveal character, and making the finale, in which the tension between Alicia and Roberto finally boils over, land with a wet noodle thunk. It doesn't help that the actress is shown up early on in the movie by Chunchuna Villafañe as Alicia's cynical friend Ana, who has a powerful confessional monologue about her own torture and rape during the Dirty War. It's a scene so vivid and brilliantly performed that it exposes the well-meaning reductiveness of the rest of the film. Good intentions beget, as they so often do, lifelessness.
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
It's not right-thinking that undoes 2016 Best Picture winner Spotlight so much as an overall misjudgment of tone. This recreation of the Boston Globe's 2001 - 2002 reporting on the Catholic Church molestation scandal is newspaper docudrama as soporific ambient album. The flavorlessness and colorlessness of the aesthetic (Masanobu Takayanagi is the cinematographer) is seemingly meant to mimic the sensation, if not the discernment, of staring at inky newsprint—black and white and read all over, but in the drabbest, most cursory of ways.
The subject calls for Sam Fuller's tabloid profundity, or, keeping with the drone-tone approach, David Fincher's scalpel-like acuity. Cowriter-director Tom McCarthy is content to do a Xerox gloss on the newsroom scenes from The Wire, in which he himself featured as a corrupt reporter. It's all very easygoing, competent, and pleasurable. But—given this subject matter, especially—should it be?
In the moment, it's easy to get caught up in the swirl of good ensemble acting. The central quartet of reporters, played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D'Arcy James, forge a lived-in rapport from scene one. Liev Schreiber is wonderfully aloof as Globe editor Marty Baron. (I'd love to see him team up, Marvel Cinematic Universe style, with Peter Sarsgaard's Chuck Lane from Shattered Glass.)
Even the smallest role is expertly cast: I was especially enamored of Michael Cyril Creighton as abuse survivor Joe Crowley. He takes an on-the-nose moment, in which his character points out the close proximity of a church to a playground, and makes it gutting simply by tossing off the line with world-weary bitterness. Kudos, also, to the genius who hired inaugural Sweeney Todd, Len Cariou, to play molestation scandal majordomo Cardinal Bernard Law.
Still, something's missing. Fervor, perhaps, though I think McCarthy's dispassionate approach is intentional, a way of mellowing the story's sensationalistic elements for mass consumption. This doesn't stop the film from occasionally tipping toward the lurid, as when D'Arcy James's character discovers that a group of pedophile priests live just a block from his home, and the camera follows him from behind as if he were Laurie Strode traipsing toward Michael Myers's house of horrors in Halloween (1978).
Yet it's exactly these moments when Spotlight tips away from well-meaning respectability that it is at its most potent. Likely because these events seem otherwise embalmed by that very particular sort of self-righteousness brought on by 20/20 hindsight. It never feels like we're discovering this story along with the reporters; it's a true-life tale told through reverent reheating.