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Ethical values and themes in 2023 Oscar-nominated films

Dr. Edward McNulty’s annual list is just in time for Sunday’s broadcast

by Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Krists Lunhaers via Unsplash

Once more, we call to your attention some of the values and themes in the films that the Academy of Motion Pictures seeks to honor during this Sunday’s broadcast. I will be looking at nine of the 10 “Best Picture” nominees, as well as a couple of others. Because of the necessity for brevity, this is by no means a thorough examination, but hopefully this will start you thinking more deeply about them.

The film titles are embedded with a link that takes you to my full review of the film at, which might suggest further themes. The Scripture references are meant to get you to think about connections between the passage(s) and the film. All my reviews include at last one Bible passage to help the reader view a film through the framework of the Scriptures. To encourage believers to discuss the issues dealt with in a film, I add a set of discussion questions that a group can use, or an individual can reflect upon. The original reviews are available (about 2,600 of them) for free, and the reviews plus guides are included in the monthly journal —at a subscription price.

American Fiction
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes

Director: Cord Jefferson. Related Scripture: Romans 12:2 (JB Phillips).

This adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 satirical novel “Erasure” is aimed at white liberals such as me who belong to churches like our Presbyterian denomination. It challenges us as cultural leaders to wrestle with the question of how our support of African Americans is still sometimes a matter of our paternalism that pressures Black creative types to conform to our expectations. The Black writer in the film, disappointed that his serious novels are not selling, pushes back against the expectations of white critics and readers by writing a novel filled with all the clichés from supposed ghetto life — and is surprised when his literary joke is taken seriously by a publisher and a Hollywood producer. His fake novel achieves such fame and fortune that the film might remind you of Spike Lee’s delightful satireBamboozled.” It is good to see that the film’s star, Jeffrey Wright, has been nominated for Best Actor.

 Anatomy of a Fall

Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 31 minutes

Director: Justine Triet.  Related Scripture: Exodus 23:7

Justine Triet’s film is a teaser, raising the question of “did Sandra Hüller or did she not” push her estranged husband Samuel out a high-up window? Their young partially blind son discovers his father’s body sprawled out in the snow beneath the window when he takes their dog for a walk. He also had heard his parents quarreling. Did the husband die by suicide out of despair because his wife’s writings had achieved far more fame than his, or as the prosecutor claims, did she murder him because of their domestic turmoil? Those who love courtroom dramas will find much to like in this taut tale, with the outcome dependent upon the son’s testimony. Should he act out of concern for the truth, or does he risk losing a second parent? There is forensic evidence and testimony from experts on both sides that are convincing, suggesting that our view of what happened in a given situation is ambiguous, not at all a comforting notion. But then the filmmaker wants to challenge us, not comfort us.


Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes

Director: Greta Gerwig

Related Scripture: Genesis 5:2; Psalm 8:3-4

The ever-creative Greta Gerwig turns what could have been a saccharine tale promoting a famous toy (or infamous, according to many Barbie distractors) into a film that explores gender and paternalism. Alone worth the price of a ticket is the manifesto of the Gloria character who describes the struggles and the contradictions of being a woman in our society today. The film also raises such questions as “Would a matriarchy in which women dominate men be any better than a patriarchy?” And I love the question raised by one of the male characters named Aaron Dinkins, “I’m a man with no power, does that make me a woman?” This is not a film just for little girls who collect Barbie dolls and clothing, but for adults as well, those concerned with mind-molding ads aimed at women and girls.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Rated R. Running time: 3 hours 26 minutes

Director: Martin Scorsese. Related Scriptures: Jeremiah 6:13; Mark 8:36

What at first was intended to be a murder mystery centered on a white federal agent has emerged as a timely film centered on the Osage Indian victims instead. Like all Native Americans, the Osage tribe had been pushed out of their territory — Missouri — onto seemingly worthless land in Oklahoma. Then, when the tribe become rich from the oil discovered beneath the surface, predatory whites move in to rob the members of their wealth by marrying the women and killing them off, a case in point being Bill “King” Hale, who persuades his malleable nephew Ernest Burkhart to woo and marry Mollie Kyle. Besides the racism of the uncle and nephew, the film deals with the conflict of Ernest’s genuine initial love for Mollie and his and his uncle’s greed for her wealth. Guess which winds up the winner?


Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes

Director: Bradley Cooper.  Related Scripture: Psalm 78:72

Can a bisexual genius straddle several worlds — that of classical music and pop and Broadway, as well as conventional marriage and indulging a taste for attractive men? This fascinating study of the career of Leonard Bernstein and his relationship with actress Felicia Montealegre suggests the possibilities of “yes” to the first but shows that one of the marital parties will suffer deep anguish and anger by marrying a bisexual man. Not only is Felicia hurt by her husband’s secrecy and lies about his gender relationships (forced by a homophobic society), but when one of their daughters reaches adolescence and hears rumors about his affair with men, Bernstein feels he must lie to her. Truth-telling thus becoming a casualty of his war with an intolerant society. Filled with bits of divine music, Bradley Cooper’s film reminds us of the complexity of the human psyche and of what a mixed blessing the gift of genius can be.


Rated R. Running time: 3 hours

Director:  Christopher Nolan. Related Scriptures: Isaiah 13:4-5; Genesis 11:4a

Though there are a great many scientists with international reputations depicted in this complex film, only the central figure Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed by Cillian Murphy (who has been nominated for Best Actor) has been dubbed “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” We know that the result of the intense work of the Manhattan Project resulted in a vast amount of suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — up to 210,000 deaths and even more wounded — but that estimates of casualties from an invasion of Japan ran into the millions for both sides, so there is plenty of room for argument that the use of the A-bomb did save lives. Some of the scientists do push for the United States to stage a test of the bomb in view of Japanese leaders in the hope of persuading them to surrender, but the military’s refusal to try this leaves that issue in the arena of speculation. Another issue raised in the latter part of the film is the Red Scare that broke out like a deadly disease after the war, ruining Oppenheimer’s reputation and career. Nolan’s film is a welcome restoration of at least the scientist’s reputation, as well as paying tribute to him.

Photo by Jake Hills via Unsplash

Past Lives

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Director:  Celine Song. Related Scriptures: Song of Songs 8:7; I Corinthians 13:4-5a

Director Celine Song’s gentle film is a blend of cross-cultural romance and the theme of might-have-been. Hae Sung and Na Young were childhood sweethearts in Seoul, but their relationship is cut off when Na Young’s parents and she move to Canada. For a while they communicate via the internet. Years later, Na Young changes her name to Nora and moves to New York City to pursue a writing career. At a writers’ retreat she meets, falls in love with, and marries the Jewish aspiring writer Arthur. When Hae Sung, now an engineer, manages to track her down again, he visits her, with Arthur’s consent. Writer Song introduces us to the Buddhist concept of In-Yun, translated as fate or destiny, and involving choices we make (an aspiring writer she had wanted to win a Nobel, then a Pulitzer, and in New York City, now a playwright, a Tony Award). Arthur, troubled by the intrusion of this past suitor into their lives, provides the most poignant moment in the film when he asks anxiously, “You make my world so much bigger and I’m wondering if I do the same for you?” Viewers probably will be led to reflect upon their past grade school and high school crushes, wondering where the person is now and what might have happened if they had remained connected.

The Zone of Interest

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Director: Jonathan Glazer. Related Scriptures: Proverbs 10:2; Matthew 16:26

Of the hundreds of films about the Holocaust, this is the most unusual in that we do not see the brutal torture and murder transpiring on the other side of the high wall that blocks the view of Frau Höss as she shows off her lovely flower garden to her visiting mother. The mother of five children, Hedwig Höss is married to Rudolph Höss, Commandant of the Auschwitz death camp. We do see the chimneys of the crematoriums belching smoke, and at one time Rudolph, while out boating with his family, notices the Jewish ashes on the surface of the water, and thus cuts short the outing lest the children ask unanswerable questions about the fallout. However, from the sounds of shouted commands, shots, screams and dull roar of the furnaces, there can be no doubt about the evil taking place on the unseen side of the wall. The husband and wife talk about many things — their family, the garden, a promotion he is offered — but never a word about what brought them to the house and garden that they both adore! What a study in the ability of those enmeshed in evil to compartmentalize their lives!

The Holdovers

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

Director:  Alexander Payne. Related Scripture: Proverbs 28:11 (CEV).

One of this year’s nominees for Best Actor, Paul Giamatti, plays Paul, a jaded college professor tired of teaching over-privileged rich kids who feel entitled to all the good things of life. He treats his classes with such disdain that he is disliked as much by the administration as he is by his students. The headmaster punishes him by putting him in charge of a group of students who are unable to go home for the Christmas break. Soon it is just one student left on campus, the rebellious Angus, plus Mary, the African American head of the food department. She is still grieving the loss of her son — it is 1970 — in Vietnam. Her lower-class distinction is highlighted in that her son, having attended the school on a scholarship, was unable to obtain a draft exemption, as all of the white students had. Paul gives in to Angus’s desire to leave campus — against the rules — so he can visit his father, locked away in a Boston mental institution. The teacher and student of course bond, with a transformed Paul interceding with the upset headmaster who would like to expel Angus. The ending, with Angus at last seeing the value of an education as Paul leaves the college, will remind you of the conclusion of “Dead Poets Society.”


Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Director:  George C. Wolf. Related Scriptures: Psalm 10:17-18; Mark 9:35

Colman Domingo, who is also nominated for Best Actor, brings alive the man who was essential in handling the manifold complexities of organizing the famous March on Washington in 1963. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gets most of the credit for the March, but without Bayard Rustin, there probably would not have been one. Always working in the background because he was gay as well as Black, Rustin was forced to leave King at one point when their enemies threatened to accuse the two of having an affair. How he came back to guide the sometimes-fractious civil rights leaders to unite and pull off the huge March is rewarding viewing. I love the ending in which Rustin shows us what servant leadership is. Forced to recede into the shadows because of that era’s prevalent homophobia, it is heartening to see this genius of a leader with a double societal handicap receive the honor that’s due to him.

The Color Purple

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

Director:  Samuel Bazawule. Related Scriptures: Psalm 119:121-123; Isaiah 9:2a; Romans 8:28

This is a remake of the novel, not of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 version, so there are many differences, the first of which is the dropping of Celie’s letters that she writes to God, and the insertion in their place of songs, which achieve the same purpose — moving the plot along and allowing us to hear what the various characters are thinking and feeling. The story remains one of sisterhood — both that of Celie and Nettie, as well as solidarity with other women — faced with cruel male abuse and also white racism. The abusive Mister buys Nettie as his virtual slave from her father and keeps the sisters apart through the years, even intercepting and hiding the letters that Nettie persistently keeps writing and sending. A brash woman named Sofia is the one who runs afoul of white racism, and it is the mistress of Mister, Shug, an itinerant singer, who becomes the agent of grace, instilling Celie with a sense of self-worth and dignity. You might reflect upon the first half of Celie’s life as akin to Good Friday, with the joy of Easter flooding the latter part with its warmth and light. The Thanksgiving dinner in which Celie stands up to Mister is a delight, as is the final outdoor dinner around a huge tree in which Celie and Nettie, with all of their family, are reunited, thanks to the efforts of a transformed Mister. And what makes me now prefer this version of the film is where Mister is situated during this heaven-like meal, wonderfully symbolic of Christian reconciliation. What a parable to enrich the eucharistic invitation in which we say, “All are welcome to the Lord’s Table!”

Dr. Edward McNulty

Dr. Edward McNulty, a retired Presbyterian pastor, was the film reviewer for Presbyterians Today.

The author of three books on film published by Westminster John Knox Press, he has been reviewing films and connecting them to faith for more than 40 years, with over 2,500 of his reviews available free here.

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