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Idealism, Cynicism and the Wars Between



M. Neset Here. Tonight I’m the Academy’s war correspondent. Bridge of Spies, Son of Saul, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, The Look of Silence, and Cartel Land are all about wars of one kind or the other. Or is that politics as the famous Clausewitz quote would have it, “…War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

Here’s one way of looking at some of the nominees and their message(s)—by following a little bit of a theme based on this quote from writer David Wolf, “Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.”

Starting with idealism then…What Happened, Miss Simone? does what the best documentaries do, give us the person and/or the time and/or the event(s) up close and personal. I knew way too little about Nina Simone the Blues singer, and less about Nina Simone, civil rights activist and songwriter of “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Now I am a fan. One might wonder if we’re not on a course to need an “America Goddam” if the current political landscape doesn’t change.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is brimming over with idealism. Another surprise for me. Realizing how shallowly I had followed the news from the Maidan, also realizing without Aljazeera we would, and will again shortly, have little international news on television…time for some serious streaming from elsewhere in the world and giving our television media over to pop politics, sports and weather disasters—oh yeah, and gunplay.

What happened in Ukraine is that people like us took to the streets and forced a government out of office. Like us—ordinary working and professional people of all ages and at all economic levels. We’re not there yet, too many of us still just comfortable enough to keep us in our houses in our connected Cloud worlds which the bullets haven’t pierced. Mostly. Yet.

Moving on to experience. Son of Saul is a horrific portrayal of real life and events that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.  It’s the story of one Hungarian prisoner’s attempt to bury the body of a boy that may be his son in a sanctioned Jewish ceremony. As the gassings and burnings and shootings of and by his fellow human beings crowd around him, he undertakes a series of desperate measures to find a rabbi who can conduct a proper burial, in fact risking an escape plan to do so. This is one dark, dreary, intense and soul-wearying movie.

Tom Hanks offers up a cold war experience in Bridge of Spies. It is just such a good old fashioned spy story with Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks as he does so perfectly—this time he’s Tom Hanks the spy with the worst sniffly stuffy cold/flu symptoms one could have in the worst possible place to have them—freezing and newly divided Berlin.

Moving right on to cynicism. The Look of Silence and Cartel Land will make the most idealistic among us go ‘Oh what’s the use!’ The Look of Silence is just that—a long piercing quietly questioning look at what happened to one young activist in Indonesia’s ‘anti-communist’ purge during the 60s. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated as best doc a couple of years ago, covers much the same territory but without the very personal story told in The Look of Silence by a young optometrist whose older brother was murdered during the purge. Some reviews describe the movie as ‘stomach-churning’ and yes that is true.

If you need another dash of cynicism move right on to Cartel Land and try to figure out who the good guys are, who the bad guys are and what separates them. Mexican villagers and their horny doctor-leader fighting the cartels or the crazy dude on the American side of the border leading his merry band of racists against the border crossers. Why is everyone so damn flawed?

I found this quote by Nikita Khrushchev on-line. It seems to go well with the cynicism part: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

One more post and my Oscar work for this year will be complete.

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