Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Academy Awards 2006: Hopefuls

This year’s Best Picture Academy nominations say a story. Three of the five films in this slot are very personal pieces that essentially deal with the relationship between largely two individuals. Take Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (Taiwanese cinema is hoping to cash in on this native director to boost the country’s sagging cinema). It is a narrative of two gay (or better call them bisexual, since both married and had children) cowboys in the early 1960s America who while tending to a large flock of sheep under very trying circumstances fall in love, and continue to be in love for a couple of decades.

Lee’s work captures the grandeur of a mountainous region to push home the pain and ecstasy of a forbidden love, at least it was so then. Against the background of some extraordinarily captivating scenes of Nature, we see Heath Ledger (also been given a nod for the Best Actor Oscar), playing Ennis Del Mar, as the more restrained of the two men. The other, Jake Gyllenhaal (Best Supporting Actor) as Jack Twist, is demonstrative and willing to risk all to be with his lover.

Some viewers have felt that there is not enough sex in “Brokeback Mountain”. True, but therein lies its appeal. One remembers here Tomas Alea’s Cuban work, “Strawberry and Chocolate” (1994/5), which was made with utmost restraint. Such was the tightness of the script that even those who may have walked into a cinema apprehensive of such alternate sexual tendency walked out with a fairly high degree of comfort and acceptance.

Lee’s (also nominated as Best Director) creation is an intimate study of passion and betrayal, but these seldom reach a crescendo. Instead, what we see is a movie that reminds us of old Hollywood in pace, mood and style.

David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck
Another Best Picture nominated film that also gives us this sense of cinema from another era is, George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck”. Made in black and white, which gives it a strong visual sense, this work is also about two men. Ed Murrow and Joe McCarthy. One of the most powerful news commentators in the 1950s – whose radio broadcasts from the European front during World War II laid the foundation for his later television programmes on Columbia Broadcasting Service that focused on both current affairs/politics and entertainment -- Murrow became a revered name.

Senator Joe Macarthy -- the junior Senator from Wisconsin, who was investigating un-American activities especially of Communists and their sympathizers -- is targeted by Murrow. And the two men’s televised conflicts make gripping drama, with the black and white images adding punch and depth.

Clooney (Best Director nod), who himself plays Murrow’s supportive producer, Fred Friendly, works with a tight script which takes us into the working of a newsroom, where each one believes that the freedom of speech and information can never be compromised under any circumstance.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," Murrow tells his viewers. "We cannot defeat freedom abroad by abandoning it at home." Friendly nods with a smile in complete agreement.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” – this is how Murrow ends each episode of his telecasts – seems like a powerful indictment of what is happening in the U.S. today. We have seen some of it in the case of Michael Moore, whose documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, attracted harsh reactions from President George Bush himself.

David Strathairn, (nominated in the Best Actor category), who enacts Murrow, is a force to reckon with on the screen, and he brings to life one of world’s best known and feared journalists. His comments stirred the first of the opposition for the “witch hunt” in America that threatened to disturb the foundation of free speech.

Bennett Miller’s (in the Best Director’s race) “Capote” is a fascinating account of novelist Truman Capote’s obsession with himself and his work: he reads a 1959 newspaper article about the murder of a wealthy family by two sociopaths. Capote meets them and tries analyzing their minds till their hanging. This takes about six years, and a book, “In Cold Blood” emerges after that.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Actor nomination), who is Capote in the film, is wonderful with his squeaky drawl and elfin looks. Hoffman succeeds in projecting almost flawlessly Capote’s complex character and temperament.

Not so personal at some level is Steven Spielberg’s (also running for the Best Director trophy) “Munich”, which tells the story of Black September: the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eric Bana (Of “Troy” fame”) turns into a fine actor in “Munich”, where as the Mossad (Israeli secret service) agent, Avner, heads a small team to eliminate the 11 people guilty of masterminding the massacre.

Bana captures the turmoil in Avner as he ultimately realises that just as he is fighting a cause, so are the others. Avner’s transformation from a killer to a humanist, who worries himself sick about his baby daughter and wife, underlines Spielberg’s theme, beautifully brought out in the closing shot of “Munich”. We see the Twin Towers in New York, and as Avner refuses the Mossad chief to take up further assignments and walks away, “Munich’s” soul-searching message cannot be missed: nations must remember their blunders and the dark side of their past.

Paul Haggis’ (Best Director contender) “Crash” is a moving picture of racial crime in Los Angeles that like “Munich” has undertones of troubled conscience. We see a white police officer molest a black woman in the presence of her husband. Sometime later, the officer risks his life to save the same woman trapped in an overturned car which is about to explode. Other such examples can be seen.

In a voice over at the beginning, we hear “in a city where people are afraid to touch, we crash into each other to feel something”. “Crash” begins an ends with an automobile collission that substantiates this and more. Haggis of course gives us reasons why his characters behave the way they do in a engaging piece of work that is intimate and even endearing in some ways.

Clearly, this is the year of intimacy.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated March 3 2006)

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