Not so long ago, it looked as if the movies had firmly embraced topicality. Digital technology had radically shortened the production cycle. Ferociously reportorial writers and/or directors like Mark Boal, Aaron Sorkin and Oliver Stone were speeding toward the screen with timely, “ripped-from-the-headlines” films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Social Network and Snowden even while their real-life characters and plot lines were still unfolding. It was pretty heady stuff, all caught up in Congressional scrutiny, court transcripts and debate about ongoing government surveillance of just about everyone.
The news-movie mash-up helped us to figure things out. Some of it was even great cinema.
Which makes this year’s longlist for the BAFTA best film award—a pretty fair compendium of the most compelling motion pictures currently available—something of a puzzlement. The list has drama (The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth). It has music (West Side Story, tick, tick . . . Boom!). It even has a few laughs (Licorice Pizza, CODA).
But missing are the things we worry about most, right now—that is, topicality of a sort that once seemed to have become a core piece of the awards architecture.
Day after day, we are wrestling—as a culture, as a society—with Covid, lockdowns and a profound debate about personal freedom and the power of government and business to control behavior in pursuit of the perceived general good. But I don’t see much of that in BAFTA’s top 15 films (unless it’s lurking deep within the science fiction folds of Dune).
Alongside the virus, small matters like urban decay, street crime, smash-and-grabs, inflation, abortion, partisan rancor, supposed insurrection and breakdown at the border are upending us. But the closest you’ll come to any of that on the BAFTA list is a way backward look at Catholic-Protestant violence in Belfast.
Even Don’t Look Up, an apocalyptic satire purportedly about climate change, isn’t precisely topical. Rather, it is a story about our refusal to put environmental destruction—an enduring concern among progressives—at the top of the news queue. The film frets not about what worries us, but what doesn’t worry us enough.
Fourteen months ago, I speculated that the movies—unable to keep up with a rapidly accelerating, crisis-a-day news cycle—would be pushed into a much smaller, more intimate, more detached space.
In one sense, I was wrong: We’ve been stuck with the big story, Covid, for almost two years. So there was plenty of time for a prize-worthy pandemic film, or two, or three.
But, in fact, the movies have withdrawn from the news. Sorkin, having once exposed the dark side of Facebook almost in real time, is now cocooned with the Ricardos. Paul Thomas Anderson, who tackled The Master at a time when Hollywood’s favorite cult was a hot issue, has retreated into light-hearted Valley nostalgia.
House of Gucci, King Richard, No Time to Die, The French Dispatch and The Lost Daughter—all on the BAFTA longlist—have their virtues.
But none of those pictures, not one, manages to probe the strange, threatening, news-afflicted world we live in, right now.
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