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Moral and spiritual values in the 2017 Oscar nominated films

Finding faith in film with the best pictures of the year

by Ed McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Each year when members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announces its candidates for “Best Picture,” I again am impressed at how many of them deal with issues important to people of faith.

Darkest Hour
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Director Joe Wright. Scripture: Psalm 7:9.

What do you do when almost everyone is looking to you for leadership but strongly disagree with your assessment of the situation? When Hitler’s invasion of Poland convinced even P.M. Neville Chamberlain that his policy of appeasement was a failure, and the British turned to Winston Churchill for leadership, the latter stood almost alone against those who wanted to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler, whose armies had conquered Belgium, the Netherlands, and a large part of France. This really was a “dark hour,” for Winston Churchill, Great Britain, and for the whole of Europe. The film, dealing with the period of May 8 through June 4, 1940, demonstrates that leadership is often a lonely affair, requiring confidence in one’s own grasp of the facts and the courage to stick with them. It also greatly helps to marry a spouse who is loving and understanding—and also very, very patient in regard to one’s shortcomings and foibles.

Dunkirk
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Director Christopher Nolan. Scripture: Psalm 18:16-17.

This is a good companion to Darkest Hour because both films deal with the dangerous situation of thousands of British troops being killed or captured by Nazi invaders in 1940. The theme of courage in the face of great danger is at the heart of this film—and maybe even the theme of “miracle.” The film switches back and forth between British pilots in the sky defending the trapped troops against Nazi bombers and fighters; a commander surveying the vast array of hunkered down soldiers on the Dunkirk beach; some Tommies seeking refuge in an abandoned boat from Nazi snipers; and the crew of one of the hundreds of small boats that had set forth to rescue the troops. The film pays fitting tribute to all concerned. The civilian skipper of one craft has to make a wrenching decision as to whether to abort his mission and head back to port when his teenage son is wounded by a strafing Nazi fighter. Still called “The Miracle of Dunkirk” because of the almost 300,000 British and Allied troops that were saved from death or capture, this usually religious word might call to mind God’s rescue of the Hebrew fugitives trapped between the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptian army.

Get Out
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.
Director Jordan Peele. Scripture: Psalm 7:14-16.

It is unusual for a horror film to be nominated in this category, but this is no ordinary horror film. At first a seeming reworking of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, the film’s purpose is not just to scare us, though it does this all too well at times, but also to make us think about the important issue of racism in our society. Unlike the white liberals who produced Guess…Dinner?, the director of this film is black, and thus in a position to question the too-easy assumption of many of us white liberals who think we are no longer infected by racism. Such liberals once thought that we could educate our way out of racism, and so produced nice, rational radio and TV spots that assumed that everyone viewing them could easily change their minds when presented with “the facts.” Get Out recognizes our “heart of darkness” (as in Jeremiah 17:9), and though the film itself does not so argue, that what we all need is not just “enlightenment,” but “metanoia,” repentance, a radical change of heart and mind. This is that rare horror film that groups ought to discuss because of its makers calling into question the assumption that we as a people have left racism behind just because an African American family once occupied the White House. The title comes from a victim’s shouted warning to our black hero to run away from the estate where he has been introduced to the parents of his white fiancé. We too need to “get out”—to leave our comfort zones to face and discuss unsettling facts about ourselves and our supposedly improved society. This film can help us do that.

Lady Bird
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 34 min.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig. Scripture: Ephesians 6:1-4.

This is a film parents and teens should see and discuss, it being an insightful story of the relationship between a mother and her daughter, with the father figuring in a little more later on. Set in 2002 and spanning the senior year of high school for Christine, the girl’s struggle with her mother Marion over where she will attend college is at the heart of the story. The controlling mother wants “Ladybird,” the name the rebellious girl insists she be addressed as, to enroll in a local college, whereas the girl wants to go East, to be as far away as possible from Marion. Judging by what happens between Ladybird and her friends and mom, the importance of honesty is an important theme. In a world in which lies and cover-ups are rampant in government, business, and culture, this film becomes more than just a story about a mother and her daughter in conflict. More hopefully, it also points to the possibility of reconciliation when one gives in to the leading of love.

Phantom Thread
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson. Scripture: Matthew 7:28-30.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s arrogant couturier Reynolds Woodcock would strongly disagree with the words of Jesus. Virtually all of upper crust London are enthralled by his clothes, flocking to his three-story studio where he also lives. Their eagerness to be seen in his expensive dresses has made him rich and famous, so to heck with those “lilies of the field.” However, when he brings home Alma, his latest female conquest, a German-born waitress with a will as strong as his own, his meticulously regulated life, as finely tuned as an expensive watch, is disrupted in ways that will transform him. Though ostensibly about him, the film can be seen as a tale of female empowerment, a shy woman finding deep within herself, the courage and will to fight for her place in the world—though at times with dubious means. The latter well might contain the warning to “beware of eating those mushrooms.”

The Post
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Director Steven Spielberg. Scripture: Luke 8:17.

A good follow-up to the classic Washington Post film All the President’s Men, this film comes at a time when the press is under intense attack by those wanting to silence its reporters whose exposure of the facts threaten those in high office. The setting is the period of the 1960s and 70s when government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg sought to reveal how all the US Presidents and military leaders had been lying to the public about the Vietnam War. When the NY Times was blocked by the courts from printing what was known as The Pentagon papers, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee must decide whether to risk jail and financial ruin by publishing the stolen documents. As the story progresses, a second theme emerges, that of female empowerment, with so many business “suits” looking down upon the only skirt-wearing person at their meetings. Katherine and her deceased husband were personal friends with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, so the theme of choosing a loyalty higher than friendship is also important. A great film for discussing current issues, it is disappointing that it has received much less recognition at the Golden Globes and the Academy.

The Shape of Water
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.
Director: Guillermo del Toro. Scripture: Song of Solomon 8:6-7; Isaiah 51: 14.

Take the theme of the recent film about the interracial couple who challenged Virginia’s miscegenation law in the U.S. Supreme Court — Loving — add a touch of the 1950s sci-fi thriller — The Creature from the Black Lagoon­­­ — and you have a new slant on love overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Far superior to the 1950s film, this is more than an inter-species love story. It is also a tale of the struggle against classism, the two lowly maintenance workers at a government lab reminding me of the three midwives in the book of Exodus who refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to murder the new-born Hebrew sons. Their arrogant boss, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), treats Elisa and Zelda like pieces of furniture and the object of his experiments, an amphibian creature plucked from the waters of the Amazon, even worse, often shocking it with his electronic cattle prod for his own pleasure. There is a terrible reckoning when the oppressed rise up, but also a feeling of delight when love leaps over barriers and leads to a fairytale-like ending.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Director: Martin McDonagh. Scripture: Romans 12:19.

A mother, grieving over the unsolved rape and killing of her daughter, harasses the police chief she thinks is sitting on the case by renting two billboards accusing him of inaction. Grief, anger, and frustration at first drive Mildred Hayes, heedless of the fact that Chief Bill Willoughby is struggling with terminal cancer. At first one of his men Officer Dixon seems to be the villain due to his racism, but then he finds himself on a redemptive path, partly due to a letter left him by the Chief, a basically good man who can see goodness beneath Dixon’s racism. Another surprising development is the overcoming of the desire for vengeance, the film ending on an ambiguous note that makes us wonder about the future of Mildred and her new friend Dixon. What a delight when a film manages to surprise and challenge us.

I have not been able yet to see the ninth picture nominated, Call Me by Your Name, and so will review it later in my Visual Parables. Full reviews of all of the above films can be accessed by clicking on the titles.

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Dr. Edward McNulty, pastor of the Blue Ball Presbyterian Church in southwestern Ohio, was Presbyterians Today’s film reviewer for many years, his current reviews being available at visualparables.org. Author of three Westminster John Knox film books, his latest work is ‘JESUS CHRIST Movie Star.’


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