Being a war movie in the Oscar race has its pros and cons.
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By Jason Bailey
The only thing Oscar prognosticators like more than determining a front-runner for best picture is upending one, and this year’s front-runner would seem to be “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” It’s easy to consider it a shoo-in, as it nabbed honors from such traditional bellwethers as the Gothams, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Directors Guild of America and (most recently) the Producers, Screen Actors and Writers guilds. But there have been murmurs throughout awards season that “Everything Everywhere” couldn’t go all the way, that it was too quirky, too weird, too much to win best picture. There is, after all, a considerable bloc of older Academy voters (you know, the ones who gave that prize to “Green Book”), and we’re talking about a hyperkinetic multiverse action fantasy that includes a sex-toy fight.
If not “Everything,” then what? The Golden Globes passed over “Everything Everywhere” to give its best picture (musical or comedy) trophy to Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” and gave its matching prize on the drama side to Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans”; several prominent critics groups selected Todd Field’s “Tár” as the year’s best picture. But the real dark horse emerged at the British Academy Film and Television Arts Awards (a.k.a. the BAFTAs), whose voters passed over “Everything,” “Banshees,” “Elvis” and “Tár” to hand the award for best film to Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
It sounds, on its face, like a long shot. What are the chances that the Academy would award its top prize to a subtitled German antiwar film with no stateside stars, little domestic buzz and a barely there theatrical release — because it was distributed by Netflix, with whom the organization has been notoriously stingy with trophies? Netflix itself seemed to have been caught off guard by the film’s strong showing at the Oscars (nine nominations), after spending the fall mounting campaigns for costly auteur passion projects like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo” (one nomination) and Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” (zero).
A non-English film winning the best picture Oscar might have been unthinkable before 2020, when Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” did just that. But more important, beyond its international pedigree and critical plaudits, “All Quiet” is a war movie, which is a genre Academy voters have always embraced. And I do mean always: the very first best picture Oscar (or, as it was called that night, “outstanding picture”) went to a war movie, William A. Wellman’s high-flying epic “Wings” — set, like “All Quiet,” during World War I.
In the years since, the best picture prize has gone to several war movies, including “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Patton,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Braveheart” and “The Hurt Locker,” as well as a number of war-related dramas, such as “Mrs. Miniver,” “Casablanca,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Schindler’s List” and “The English Patient.” Most notably, the third best picture prize of all time went to … Lewis Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which makes this a perhaps irresistible opportunity to make Oscar history (a remake of a previous best picture winner has never pulled a repeat).
Those lists speak for themselves — few things are as inherently dramatic or cinematic as battle (both the act itself and its aftermath), and the war movie has proved itself a genre that’s pliable to the times and the nation’s constantly shifting moods. That durability is what might make a film like “All Quiet” attractive to the older voting bloc; there are occasional subversions at play, like the modern-tinged musical score, but they exist side-by-side with the traditional elements that attracted Oscar voters not only to those previous winners, but also to well-regarded nominees like “Apocalypse Now,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Thin Red Line,” “The Pianist,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “American Sniper,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Dunkirk” and “Jojo Rabbit.”
The footprints of two previous films, both nominated for multiple Oscars, are especially present in the new “All Quiet” — and are seemingly as much an inspiration for Berger’s adaptation as the original novel or the Milestone film. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 smash “Saving Private Ryan” seems to have been the most influential war movie of our time, codifying a set of stylistic devices (desaturated color, hand-held camera, offhand gore) that are all but inescapable in battle epics since. Those flourishes are all over “All Quiet,” particularly in its opening sequence, which is (like “Ryan”) a wordless, immediate, you-are-there plunge into terrifying, visceral combat.
The scenes that follow are filled with similar echoes of the film that “Parasite” beat for best picture: Sam Mendes’s “1917,” which shares with “All Quiet” the World War I setting and foxhole-heavy battle scenes, and even seems, at one point, to be quoting the mad dash across an active battlefield that gave “1917” its biggest emotional punch. If anything, such unmistakable shout-outs are the Berger film’s biggest flaw; it seems meticulously, almost mathematically assembled from other parts. Then again, Oscar has never been big on groundbreaking originality — at least not in this particular prize.
It’s worth noting that both “Saving Private Ryan” and “1917” did not win the best picture Oscar, though both were heavily favored to do so, which may serve to dispute the notion that a war film can go all the way. (Despite that flurry of nominated titles, the last one to win was “The Hurt Locker,” 13 years ago.) But those losses, particularly “Saving Private Ryan,” could still weigh heavily on the minds of voters; as we’ve seen, time and again, the Academy will eagerly award a make-good trophy, and the influence of those also-rans is pronounced enough that this could feel like one.
One should also bear in mind that the film’s eight other nominations do not include any acting nods, a notoriously tough hurdle for best picture winners to clear with the actor-heavy Academy (though, again, “Parasite” pulled it off). And if the odds seem too heavily stacked against a big win for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” remember this: The one thing Oscar loves most is an underdog story.
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