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The Oscars go to Hell

By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 18, 2008

Oh, you say, but we weren’t then engaged in a war against “evildoers.” Come again? As viewers of Charlie Wilson’s War, a jolly and factually facile take on this dubious chapter in American foreign policy, might notice, that was the year that the film’s titular congressman leveraged the US into a covert billion-dollar funding of the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan.

So, in both 1987 and 2007, the consequences of cupidity, deceit, and wickedness were made plain, and the people responded by celebrating, at least on the screen, incarnations of those same baleful qualities. Douglas’s Gekko had everything that was wrong with America going for him. How we loved him! Same goes for Day-Lewis’s Plainview. The time will come when Gekko’s mantra “Greed . . . is good,” which every suspender-sporting Wall Street wannabe would parrot for years to come, will be succeeded by Plainview’s more enigmatic “I drink your milkshake!” They’ve already designed the T-shirt.

For that and other reasons (he’s up for a Screen Actors Guild award and just won the Golden Globe, to name two), Day-Lewis is a lock for a best-actor nomination. The film, too, should earn a best-picture nod and Paul Thomas Anderson will be in the running for best director.

Not that there is any shortage of demonic assholes this year, and films celebrating them — including the aforementioned Charlie Wilson’s War. Had director Mike Nichols shown some spine and not softened Wilson into a lovable scamp (i.e., Tom Hanks) and turned the brutal Afghan wars into a madcap romp, he might have had something. As it is, Philip Seymour Hoffman manages to portray CIA bagman Gust Avrakotos — a wisecracking loose cannon — somewhat more amiably than the fanatical but somehow irresistible gargoyle depicted in George Crile’s book. The performance, the alpha-male antithesis of the one he cashed in for an Oscar two years ago in Capote, will put Hoffman in line for a best-supporting-actor trophy.

Hoffman gets to really uncoil, however, as the sociopathic, decadent brother in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which to my surprise and disappointment has garnered little critical or awards attention, failing to manage any SAG or Golden Globe nominations. Yet his amoral, anarchic energy suffuses the movie and should propel 83-year-old Sidney Lumet to his fifth nomination for best director.

Shiva the God of Death
In both Blood and The Devil, the beast has a human face, grotesque but appealing. In Michael Clayton, another likely best-picture nominee, evil has reified into a soulless but omnipotent corporation served by minions with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The hero of the title, played by George Clooney in a best actor–worthy performance, is uneasy about his role as a “janitor” for an amoral law firm, cleaning up the messes left by its corporate clients. Likewise, the lawyer played by probable best-supporting-actor candidate Tom Wilkinson, realizes in a moment of megalomaniacal, manic-depressive lucidity that he’s an unwitting instrument for a vast, evil, anti-human entity. “I am Shiva, the God of Death!” he announces at one point. Neither character is finding much job satisfaction.

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  Topics: Features , Elections and Voting, Politics, Denzel Washington,  More more >
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