Waging wars to win the Oscars

Waging wars to win the Oscars

Hollywood diaries

In Fury, brutal American tankers beat Hitler with grit. “These are the guys who won the war,” insists David Ayer, who wrote and directed the film, which opened recently.

 But The Imitation Game, which arrives on screens soon, credits victory to cold British logic. “Blood-soaked calculus” is what the film’s hero, Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, calls his code-breaking during World War II. 

In contrast to both, Unbroken, due on Christmas, finds triumph in the soul. Directed by Angelina Jolie, that film tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and downed B-24 bombardier whose captivity and torment ended in spiritual redemption.

Guts. Brains. Spirit. So what was it that led the Allies to victory? And, perhaps more pressingly for Hollywood, which makes the best movie? These three pictures — each with a radically different perspective on the lessons of World War II — are likely to open fresh conversations about the war. With major stars and prominent filmmakers, all three films are virtually certain to be widely seen. And each is backed by a studio that appears bent on pushing it toward the Academy Awards ceremony, on February 22.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum, is a prime prospect for The Weinstein Co. which in 2011 captured the best picture award with another World War II-themed film, The King’s Speech. Like that predecessor, The Imitation Game was introduced at film festivals in Telluride and Toronto, and will open next month, just as awards voters start crystallising their opinions.

Fury, which stars Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman, among others, has been positioned by Sony Pictures Entertainment differently, as an action film: A poster for it shows an exhausted Pitt slumped over the cannon of a tank he commands and for which the movie is titled. But the studio, in a sure sign that it is trolling for prizes, has retained Lisa Taback, an Oscar consultant who has been aligned with successful campaigns by Weinstein.

Universal Pictures, for its part, will come late to the race with Unbroken, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Though unusual, the sudden convergence of World War II films has precedent. In 1999, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, all set during the war, captured three out of five nominations for the best picture Oscar. 

In what was widely seen as an upset over Spielberg’s film, the award went instead to a romance, Shakespeare in Love, directed by John Madden. (Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, was the other nominee.)

David Rensin, who collaborated on two books with Zamperini before he died in July at 97, suggests that the current alignment may pose a sort of cultural reconciliation with fast-disappearing veterans of the war. “It’s the last great shot for the greatest generation,” said Rensin, whose new book with Zamperini, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons From an Extraordinary Life, is being published.

If the films are indeed a final accounting, they add up in different ways. They are far less reliant on a warm “band of brothers” sentiment than were earlier war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Battle of the Bulge and The Big Red One.

The new movies’ heroes are a diverse group: The fictional Wardaddy Collier, played by Pitt, is a ferocious tank commander; Turing, played by Cumberbatch, is a persecuted, gay mathematician (he died in 1954, at just 41); and Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell, was tortured and starved by his Japanese captors, but later, with guidance from the evangelist Billy Graham, learned to forgive his enemies.

Peter Biskind, a film historian who is at work on a book about what he calls “extreme culture,” said he was not surprised to find the new war films telling harsh stories that drive toward opposing conclusions. He spoke earlier this month of a cultural landscape in which consensus has faded, and studio filmmakers are pushing toward edges they might not otherwise have tested.

Unbroken is perhaps the closest of the three to a conventional Hollywood film in its focus on an empathetic protagonist. But Fury pushes the envelope with its unblinking look at the behaviour of US forces, who in older films were often simply lionised, while The Imitation Game stretches elsewhere, with its admiration for a hero who was ostracised in his time.

Graham Moore, who wrote The Imitation Game, noted that Turing’s story — in which a chilly moral calculus and the secretiveness of a hunted homosexual turn the war’s tide — had once seemed too difficult for a major film

 “About once a year, I would tell my agents I really want to write this movie about a gay English mathematician who committed suicide in the ‘50s, and they would say, ‘Please don’t,’” Moore said. Now, he added, “Lots of unique and special movies are getting made, and I get to watch them.”