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Ethical and spiritual values in the Oscar-nominated films


Here’s one PC(USA) film critic on what to consider heading into Sunday’s Oscar broadcast

by the Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Ahead of Sunday’s Oscar broadcast, critic Edward McNulty discusses nominated films that feature ethical and spiritual values.

LOUISVILLE — The nominations for the 2019 Oscar Awards have been out for some time now, and once more I invite you to explore some of the ethical and spiritual values in the major nominated films. This can add to your enjoyment if you plan to watch ABC’s broadcast of the Oscars, set for 8 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday. If some fashionistas can get excited over what stars wear on the red carpet, why not show equal interest in what values are embedded in the nominated movies themselves?

The following observations also are meant to spur you to seek out the films, either in case you missed them during their theatrical runs or to revisit them and discover anew the values and themes that, in addition to their cinematic merits, led to their consideration for Hollywood’s highest honors.

To read more about the films, click onto their titles, embedded with links to longer reviews. Only a few details can be included in this article. Because I always include one or more relevant Scripture passage when exploring a film, I have included their references.

Let’s begin with a film that should have been among the Best Film nominees.


Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.

Psalm 10:1-2; 17-18

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Although it was not chosen as a candidate for “Best Film,” I want to begin with this film that did earn two other nominations (Lead Actress and Best Song) because from an ethical/spiritual standpoint, I believe it is the year’s best picture.

Cynthia Erivo’s Best Actress nomination is well deserved, the actress capturing the drive, tenacity, ferocity, and spirituality of the Abolitionist often called “Moses.” The actress even wrote the lyrics for the song nominated for an Oscar, “Stand Up.”

“Can you hear freedom calling?” the Freedom Fighter sings as she goes on to describe the hardships and dangers along the way, but which never deter her from declaring, “I’m gonna stand up. Take my people with me.”

Harriet suffers from headaches and dizziness from an old injury, but along with this come visions and premonitions in which she believes God is speaking to and guiding her. Indeed, the last lines of the song by implication compare her to the greatest Emancipator of all time, “I go to prepare a place for you.” In case you miss this reference to John 14:2, it is repeated three more times! The film clearly demonstrates that faith was at the heart of the “Moses” who led so many slaves to freedom.

Ford v Ferrari 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 32 min.

1 Corinthians 9:24

Director: James Mangold

It’s a long way from the plantations and slaves of 19th century America to the 20th century garages and raceways of director James Mangold’s film. Yet the theme of the little guy standing against the powerful is the common theme of both Harriet and this film. Actually, it is guys this time who take on high officials of the Ford Motor Company: Carroll Shelby, a crack auto designer and his friend Ken Miles, a British race car driver and mechanical expert.

Henry Ford has been humiliated by the owner of Ferrari, and thus wants badly to oust Ferrari as the winner of the prestigious endurance race known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. All along the way Shelby and Miles must buck the interference of a senior executive who feels that the two innovators with their greasy hands do not fit the image of Ford Motors. The two men thus are engaged in a dual battle against the Italians of the dominant Ferrari company and their own supervisors who think they know better than the two innovators.

 The Irishman”   

Rated R. Running time: 3 hours 29 min.

Psalm 12:1-2, 8; Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Director: Martin Scorsese

Scorsese returns to the crime genre he is so adept at, chronicling the descent into hell of the soul of a hitman who learned during World War II that it was acceptable to kill POWs. Centered on the mystery of the disappearance of Teamsters’ Union boss Jimmy Hoffa, the script is adapted from mobster Frank Sheeran’s 2004 memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa.”

Claiming that he killed Hoffa at the behest of rivals when the newly released from prison Hoffa tried to regain control of the Teamsters, Sheeran paints a fascinating yet depressing picture of an America in which organized crime has played a major role. The bright picture of the Kennedys’ Camelot has a dark side, with crime bosses involved in JFK’s election campaign, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and possibly even in the president’s assassination.

 Jojo Rabbit

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Psalm 64:1-3; Habakkuk 1:13; 3 John 1:11

Director: Taika Waititi

Waititi dares to follow in the steps of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” by creating a comedy in which a young admirer of Hitler nicknamed Jojo fantasizes that Hitler is his constant companion with whom he can converse.

Most of the comedy centers on the boy’s ineptness as a Hitler Youth where its buffoon leaders order him to kill a rabbit in front of the other boys and girls. Raised by a loving mother who, unknown to him is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic, Jojo cannot bring himself to twist the little creature’s neck, so he is mocked and ostracized.

His bumbling action during training with live hand grenades only drives a deeper wedge between the others and himself, except for one loyal friend. The film’s light mood abruptly changes in a shocking scene concerning his mother and, as he discovers and becomes acquainted with the hidden girl, he finds everything he has been taught about Jews is false. This is a good film to see with young people and engage in a dissection of prejudices buried deep in the American psyche.


Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Proverbs 14:13; Mark 5:1-3

Director: Todd Phillips

This is a surprisingly deep probe of the plunge of an outsider into madness and murder that takes the story far beyond the simplistic world of the old Batman comic books. The Academy must have thought so as well, its members nominating the film in eight categories, including Best Actor.

Phillips’ film is a serious portrayal of the horror that can develop from untreated mental illness, as well as a critique of societal indifference. Arthur Fleck aspires to be a stand-up comedian, but the neurological affliction that makes him to laugh at inappropriate times causes others to regard him as weird. Working as a clown for hire, he is bullied by every fellow worker but one, looked down upon by his welfare counselor and pushed away by the public when he is on the subway. His first murders result when he tries to defend a woman on the subway from three rich subway riders, launching him on an out-of-control path into violent madness.

“Could a compassionate mental health care system have saved this man?” is but one of the issues the film could raise with a group.

Little Women”

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 14 m

Proverbs 31:10; 1 Peter 4:8-10

Director: Greta Gerwig

Gerwig gives us a fresh take on this beloved story by starting with Jo Marsh living in New York and negotiating with a paternalistic publisher over terms of her novel. The familiar events during her youth back at the Marsh home in Massachusetts with her three sisters unfold in flashbacks.

In the case of Jo’s would-be artist sister Amy, again we see a woman’s desire to make it in a man’s world up against crushing odds. Along with its large dose of 19th  century feminism, the film includes many examples of love graciously reaching out to others — from the Christmas breakfast the Marshes share with an even poorer family to the lonely grandfather Mr. Laurence allowing Beth to use his dead daughter’s piano (and then giving it to her), to the heart-warming reconciliation between Jo and Amy after the latter burns her sister’s manuscripts to get even with her.

This is a good film for women to insist that men watch and discuss with them — the women hopefully enlightening the men by sharing why the story has been so cherished through the generations by “little women” seeking clues for how they will fit into a world dominated by men. The novel might be almost 160 years old, but surely in a country that elects to the office of president a man caught on tape boasting how he gets away with fondling women, the book is still vital!

Marriage Story

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 16 min.

Matthew 5:23-25; 19:7-9

Director: Noah Baumbach

Baumbach’s film could be seen partially as a cautionary tale warning to be wary of lawyers, though on a deeper level it examines how in our culture when a couple are equally talented, the woman will live in the shadow of her husband.

Charlie and Nicole grew up on opposite sides of the country — he in Brooklyn, and she in Los Angeles. Once a rising actress known for disrobing in a movie, she is now praised for her talent in the troupe directed by Charlie in New York. His avant garde play is about to open on Broadway, but Nicole has decided to accept the lead in a Hollywood pilot project that promises to make it on television. Charlie is surprised to be told that she plans to move west with their 8-year-old son — and that she intends to seek a divorce.

They agree to part on a friendly basis, but her attack dog lawyer sweeps this aside, Charlie soon discovering he is in danger of losing everything — even the grant intended to finance his new play. In a fiery battle of barbed words, Charlie is shorn of his illusions about the happiness of their marriage, Nicole declaring,” I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness.” This is an insightful film for marrieds of all ages to discuss and think about!


Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.

Ecclesiastes 9:11; Jeremiah 51:43

Director: Sam Mendes

Mendes’ film, a profile in courage during World War I, surprised many by racking up 10 nominations. Through many shots of dead soldiers and humans and forests whose trees look like telephone poles, the film depicts the madness of war.

Two British soldiers, one idealistic and the other cynical, are sent out to deliver a message that can save 1,600 lives if the message gets through. The film focuses on the journey of the cynical soldier from self-absorption to selfless devotion through the completion of his mission. Near the end a haunting rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” beautifully describes the plight and the mood of the soldier with the life-saving message.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood  

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 41 min.

Proverbs 17:17, 24

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino indulges his fascination with violence almost as much as in his deplorable “Inglorious Basterds” — but he also rewrites a more satisfying version of history in this intriguing look at the so-called golden days of Hollywood.

The friendship between a fading actor and his stuntman, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, is heartwarming, as is a more pleasing ending for the screen version of actress Sharon Tate, in real life one of those murdered by the Manson Gang. At the same time, the film’s violent ending should make people of faith feel very conflicted about this film.

An acquaintance recently told me she loved the scene when our hero emerges from the house with a flame thrower and incinerates the would-be murderers. I find Tarantino’s apparent fascination with excruciating death by fire a bit sadistic. (The Nazis in “Inglorious Basterdsalso die by fire, with some in the audience cheering.)


Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Job 31:24-25; Psalm 37:16; Ecclesiastes 5:10

Director/writer Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho, the first Korean director to be honored by the Academy, reveals that the wide gap between the rich and the poor is as deep in his country as in any western nation. The wealthy father may resent the lower class from, as he puts it, “crossing the line,” but the deprived will always attempt to do so, by fair means or foul.

The filmmaker makes no social media rant decrying the 1%, nor does he attempt to make the have-nots noble, like the Okies in “The Grapes of Wrath.” The rich family live in their bubble protected by gated walls, feeling entitled to their privileged life. The poor family live in a basement hovel in the slum and, faring poorly in an honest enterprise, turn to deceit as they gain a toehold in the wealthy household and arrange for the other servants to be replaced by themselves, never letting on to their employers that they know each other.

The black comedy takes an abrupt turn into horror country as one servant returns to reveal a shocking secret. The deceivers tragically play out the old dictum that one reaps what one sows.

 A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Micah 6:6; Proverbs 21:21; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Director: Marielle Heller

Heller’s film is about healing and reconciliation and is based on journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 story for Esquire, “Can You Say…Hero?”

Tom Hanks perfectly captures the spirit of Fred Rogers as he listens better to the reporter interviewing him than the reporter does to him. Finding in their conversations the malaise that is poisoning Lloyd Vogel’s (the screen name for Tom Junod) relationships goes back to when his father walked out on Vogel’s mother while she was dying, Rogers embodies the kindness that the cynical writer cannot believe at first, and his persistent reaching out and listening to the distraught man shows how such cynicism can be overcome.

The film almost ignores the fact that Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, with God and prayer mentioned only near the end when Rogers accompanies Vogel on a visit to the writer’s dying father.

The Two Popes

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.

Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 9:36; John 21:15

Director: Fernando Ferreira Meirelles

The dialogue in director Merilles’ film is made up, no one being present when Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) met in Rome. However, writer Anthony McCarten has culled the speeches and writings of the two popes to form the basis of their conversations, so the portrayals are true to the convictions of the two antagonists.

Pope Benedict stresses the importance of tradition and continuity needed by their followers faced with an erratic world of violence and false values. The Cardinal believes the church must be more flexible and welcoming, especially to the poor and the refugees who too often are ignored or shut out by a hostile and fearful world. The film suggests that two seemingly irreconcilable strong leaders can overcome their hostility when they sit down with open minds and get to know one another through active listening. “The Two Popes” was nominated for three Oscars

Les Misérables

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Psalm 10:7; Jeremiah 22:3

Director: Ladj Ly

Ly’s Oscar-nominated film (for Best Foreign Language Film) holds up a mirror to society to reveal the ugly specter of xenophobia and racism running through it. Thus, he takes up the mantle of Victor Hugo, who lived and set part of his great novel in the same district as the modern-day story is set in.

The director is well equipped to show us many of the daily goings-on of a group of impoverished African-French boys because he too was born and raised there. His Javert is the racist bully who leads a three-member plainclothes squad supposedly to protect the mostly Muslim residents of a high-rise complex east of Paris. He mistakenly thinks fear is the same as respect. A new cop with a kind heart tries to rein the brute in, but will it be enough to prevent a race riot?

The setting may be a Parisian slum, but it will be apparent that the problems the film raises are universal, so it offers a good opportunity to examine racism and the system of white domination that threatens to tear asunder our own society as well as France’s.

The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty

For McNulty’s Presbyterian News Service article on last year’s Top 10 Films, which includes many of the above films, click here.

The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty is a semi-retired Presbyterian minister serving as part-time pastor at the Blue Ball Presbyterian Church in Ohio and is the author of three Westminster John Knox Press film books and more than 2,200 film reviews available free here. The latest of his 14 books is “Jesus Christ, Movie Star.”

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