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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Case for Boyhood for Best Picture

Admittedly, I have only seen four of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Picture: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, and Selma. Nevertheless, at least of these four films, and perhaps among all of the Best Picture nominees, the winner for the ceremony's most coveted prize should be Boyhood. Early in Oscar season, it appeared as if the independent film was a surefire bet for the award, earning the movie a clear front-runner status. The movie's path seemed set when it won the Golden Globe for best drama film. Since then, the momentum appears to have shifted somewhat to Birdman after its strong performance at the SAG Awards. At best, it appears to be a draw at this stage, especially in light of Boyhood doing well at the BAFTA awards.

In my view, there's a strong case to be made for Boyhood for picture. The Richard Linklater indie, which took 12 years to construct, is easily the best film of the 2010s thus far. For one, the movie had a compelling and heartwarming narrative - one with a strong emotional appeal, particularly for those of us who grew up in the same generational time period. The main character, Mason, was extremely likable, easy to identify with, and wonderfully complex but simple all at once. The journey Linklater took us on through his life was as fascinating as it was all too real, given the fact Mason's childhood experiences, in so many ways, resemble those of millions of Americans. 

Second, the film was masterfully directed and devised. It is essentially a collection of 12 short films, created over the course of more than a course of a decade, which binds together in such a smooth, flawless manner that a viewer could be forgiven for not realizing the story behind its making. The fact that Linklater and the actors involved could pull off this unique stint is a testament to the talent behind the film.

Third, speaking of which, the acting was impeccably skillful. The performances of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as Mason's divorced parents, are especially impressive. Hawke and Arquette brilliantly capture the complicated but caring nature of their characters, who are so deftly presented as flawed but fundamentally decent individuals. As many critics have pointed out, their performances show us that the film tells us as much about the importance of parenthood as it does about the lessons of boyhood. 

Fourth, the movie majestically weaves together the personal, intimate, and formative experiences of Mason with the cultural, social, and political elements of the years that define Mason's upbringing. Ranging from the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections to the Harry Potter books to EMacs, the film excellently incorporates such historical events - no small feat given that the relevant scenes were shot in real time as these phenomenon were happening. The combination of this with Mason's own growing pains and important interactions with family and friends make his story both very identifiable to us while also incredibly unique: his story becomes our story, one that is easily recognizable, but very distinct. 

Perhaps I am biased because I saw this film with two other guys - my best friends Zac and Jack - and we all grew up in the same time period as Mason and shared some similar experiences growing up. It's fair to say I am also biased because Mason and his family are Democrats and his dad in the film is exposed as a huge Beatles fan. I like to think though that my biases in this case are outweighed by the film's genuine creativity and excellence -- and many critics seem to agree. Let's hope the Oscar voters agree too. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Humanization of Brian Williams

The saga regarding Brian Williams' alleged tall-tales, exaggerations, and falsehoods has produced a convergence of opinion in the elite news media, and among Americans at large, regarding whether NBC should fire its star anchor. It seems that, thus far, a plurality of the public and media figures, at least, think he should go. The fate of Mr. Williams remains uncertain at this hour. One thing will surely never change though: Brian Williams has been exposed bare, his weaknesses revealed, and his transgressions made clear. He has been outed as a human being, with all of the imperfection, sinfulness, and moral ambiguity that come with that fragile status.

This acknowledgment does not, per se, compel me to support or oppose Williams' ouster. In my view, that outcome should come about only if it is revealed that Williams' deception is a real, consistent pattern that includes his accounts of Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, and the 2006 Israel/Lebanon conflict. Although not fully verifiable yet, these claims, if proven true, would seemingly prove that Williams' Iraq story "fog of memory" is no accident but likely part of a broader issue. The revelation that Williams, in fact, had deliberately misled viewers regarding these matters would badly (and rightfully) damage his reputation as a trusted, astute newsman.

However, those issues, while notable and worth discussing in any profile of the Williams controversy, are separate and distinct from the matter which this post seeks to address. For many years, Brian Williams has been elevated, by his fellow Americans and by his willing partners in the world of late-night, to iconic status. He became a popular cultural figure, the symbol of suaveness, smoothness, and slickness, and a television legend in the making. Williams was widely heralded in elite and public discourse as an impeccable force, the kind of talent who could win a Peabody Award while slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon.

This image came crashing down this week in light of the Iraq story and newer developments. What it reveals is that it is vital, for the sake of our collective sensibility, to keep in perspective that celebrities, politicians, and other individuals in the public eye are, like all of us, inherently flawed, imperfect, and insecure in their own ways. This notion may appear obvious to some readers but unfortunately, the "aura" of Brian Williams, as The New York Times' Maureen Dowd described it, led many to lend him a title that was seemingly beyond human. Ironically, now the same elite media and public is turning on Brian Williams for being just like we are but it's all because we held him to the most unreasonable expectation: perfection. Yet again, the lesson that "lionization of public figures," as my friend Charlie Sucher summed it up, is a faulty approach bears true again.

UPDATE: As of 9:30 pm on Tuesday 2/10/15, Mr. Williams has been suspended for six months by NBC News.