Unexpected Hope—From Hollywood

Michael Medved

2/29/2012 12:01:00 AM - Michael Medved

For conservatives and traditionalists, unusual good news from Hollywood—in terms of both weekend box-office results and, amazingly enough, the Oscar ceremonies.

Among all new films released Friday, Act of Valor counted as the runaway winner, with the public eagerly endorsing a breathlessly paced, passionately pro-military, hyper-patriotic action film about heroic Navy SEALs protecting the public from diabolical cooperation between Islamo-Nazis and drug cartels. The movie delivered its stunningly choreographed scenes of combat on a miniscule budget of $12 million, earning back more than twice that amount ($24.7 million, an impressive $8,128 per screen) in just its first three days in release. By comparison, the top new release from the big studios, Jennifer Aniston’s intermittently amusing hippie-commune comedy, Wanderlust, earned just $6.6 million and a $3,297 average per screen.

Like The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning Best Picture from 2008, Act of Valor attempted to give moviegoers an intimate, visceral sense of personal participation in danger and combat, but unlike The Hurt Locker, this new film connected with a mass audience—earning considerably more in its first three days than its much-acclaimed predecessor brought home in its entire run.

The box-office returns suggest that the public viewed buying tickets for Act of Valor as a means of openly supporting our noble troops and endorsing their work, while The Hurt Locker seemed to express pity for its bomb-defusing military professionals—honorable but damaged guys trapped in their dubious mission in Iraq. The new film views sacrifice and service as heroic (if occasionally tragic), while the Oscar winner from two years ago emphasized the ugliness and brutality of combat. The sharply contrasting ticket sales make it clear which point of view the public prefers.

Moreover, Act of Valor's commercial triumph comes in the face of overwhelmingly negative reviews—with most critics dismissive of a project that began as a Navy recruiting film and uses real-life SEALs (and their families) rather than professional actors to play all the daring special operators in the fictional story. It’s true that the movie offers little in the way of nuance or shades of gray, but for many of us who pay close attention to the ongoing efforts of elite counterterror units, the daily struggle against some of the most depraved and monstrous forces on earth is indeed a clear-cut battle of good versus evil.

No one expects this stirring but uncomplicated action film to figure prominently in next year’s Oscar race, but the results of this year’s Academy Awards celebration should provide further encouragement for those seeking signs of new respect for traditional values.

None of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees (The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse) counted as dark, nihilistic, or shocking—like some of last year’s leading contenders, including Black Swan, 127 Hours, and Winter’s Bone. None of this year’s major nominees featured the overt left-wing political messages of other recent Oscar favorites like Avatar or Milk, and all of this year’s Best Picture possibilities took affectionate, admiring views of marriage, romance, family, and community, with Moneyball also honoring baseball and business, while War Horse glorified some of the same battlefield virtues depicted in Act of Valor.

The Academy Awards broadcast itself also proceeded with the wit and warmth everyone expected from Billy Crystal in his ninth performance as host. It’s true that a few unnecessary off-color remarks marred a show that ought to represent an occasion for family viewing—many baby boomers can recall staying up late as youngsters to see Bob Hope–hosted Oscars during Hollywood’s glory days in the 1950s and early ‘60s. No, Billy didn’t need to read the mind of Uggie, the dog from The Artist (resplendent in an elegant bow tie), suggesting that the Jack Russell terrier was trying to say, “If I had ‘em, I’d lick ‘em.” The cast of Bridesmaids also bombed with crude double entendres about length versus thickness when presenting the awards for best short films.

Nevertheless, the producers deserve credit for mostly dodging political jabs or asides despite the passions of a presidential election year. The only vague references to current controversies came when Crystal introduced presenter Christian Bale with reference to his past roles as “a dark knight, an American psycho, and a charismatic crack addict” and informed the audience, “You’ll get to choose one on Super Tuesday.” He also noted that the Harry Potter film franchise had compiled worldwide grosses of $7.7 billion, but “paid only 14 percent in income tax”—a dig at Mitt Romney to be sure, but one subtle enough to force even the Mittster and his supporters to smile.

On the other side, President Obama seems to have become Lord Voldemort to the Hollywood elite: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. While the president still raises millions for his campaign from the entertainment establishment, at the awards show, and on the red carpet that preceded it, his bid for reelection didn’t seem to come up, suggesting that the infatuation he once inspired in Tinseltown may have receded just as it has in the rest of the country.

After all, the evening’s biggest surprise came with Meryl Streep’s Best Actress award for playing one of the greatest conservatives of them all in The Iron Lady; oddsmakers had installed Viola Davis from The Help as the heavy favorite.

Last year, the Best Actress award for a very pregnant Natalie Portman came along with a minor controversy, because she thanked her “love” for giving her the gift of a baby, but he hadn’t given her the gift of marriage; Mike Huckabee joined me in disapproving comments on my radio show, concerning the potentially damaging message to a nation already suffering an epidemic of out-of-wedlock birth.

This year, the speeches by Streep and the other biggest-award winners (Jean Dujardin for Best Actor and Michel Hazanavicius for Best Director and Best Picture with The Artist) set a new standard for class and grace: all three made explicit, deeply moving acknowledgements of their spouses as the source of their creativity and joy in life, turning the conclusion of a very long evening into an unexpectedly potent advertisement for the value of loving marriage.

Expressing gratitude to a spouse at a moment of personal triumph may not constitute an act of valor, exactly, but it represents something of a surprise coming from an industry not known for its wholesome and lasting relationships.

Perhaps the winners of this year’s most prestigious Oscars can send a healthy message to their colleagues and to the rest of the country—especially since several of those victors conquered Hollywood from France, a society often hailed as the ultimate in sophistication and elegance.

The incomparably charming Jean Dujardin began his little Oscar speech with a simple declaration in his imperfect English. “I love this country!” he effused—not this industry, not this Hollywood community, but this country—this America.

With a heart-on-its-sleeve patriotic movie reigning at the box office and charismatic visitors from France using their Oscar triumphs to extol both America and marriage, maybe beleaguered conservatives might find reasons for encouragement after all.