I’ve recently been able to see two films this year that seem to be safe bets to be included in what is shaping up to be a crowded “Best Picture” race: Captain Phillips and Gravity. And while pundits often try to place certain themes on various Oscar seasons (see: 2012 as the year of the slave movie, with Django and Lincoln, or the year of the Middle East with Argo and Zero Dark Thirty), I won’t begin to say what the 2013 crop of movies say as a whole, especially because I have not seen many of them yet. But what I do find striking, at least so far, is how both Gravity and Captain Phillips seem to be about isolation and anxiety.*
*Interestingly enough, the presumed front-runner “12 Years a Slave” would also seem to deal with these issues, but again, I have not seen it.
Let’s start with “Captain Phillips.” It is difficult to try to ascertain thematic choices that director Paul Greengrass was placing in the story, as it is based on real events. However, from the moment Tom Hanks’s character boards the Maersk Alabama, to [SPOILER ALERT] when he is held at gunpoint, to [DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT] when he is taken captive in the life boat, through to [TRIPLE SPOILER ALERT] his ultimate rescue, every second is spent dealing with the anxiety and isolation he must be feeling. Captain Phillips is doubly isolated, both from his family (Catherine Keener plays his wife in a very short cameo), and from his crew. He rests uncomfortably in the lifeboat for days, without proper food or hydration, praying for rescue. He internalizes so much of this anxiety, that when he is finally rescued (after a traumatic incident involving the shooting of three of his captors), he is barely able to walk or speak.
If Captain Phillips is relatively alone on sea, then Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” is alone even more so. [QUADRUPLE SPOILER ALERT] As the sole survivor of an accident in space, her character, Dr. Ryan Stone, must make her way from US ship to International Space Station to Chinese Space Station, all while keeping her wits about her, maintaining proper oxygen levels and, of course, her sanity. Bullock’s character faces physical challenges, but it is an emotional toll that is waged against her: engines not firing properly, or a parachute’s wires tangling her escape plan, are obstacles, but hearing a Chinese man playing with his dog is what ultimately reduces her to tears. What she must go through in 91 minutes is harrowing, and when [QUINTUPLE SPOILER ALERT] she makes it back to Earth, in the water, and is able to crawl out of the metaphorical primordial ooze, it is the first time in those 91 minutes that she, and the audience, can truly breathe.
I don’t know that this will be the year of movies when people seemingly are put in situations that would cause me to have panic attacks. Tom Hanks obviously played this material well in “Cast Away,” but also dealt with issues of social anxiety and isolation in, say, “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.” And “Argo” certainly resonated with similar themes last year – not much more can make one anxious than the idea of fleeing the Iranian government hellbent on your capture and execution. But I do think it would be fitting for the Oscar to go to a movie that so brazenly deals with panic in a year when the box office champ had a main character plagued by his own panic attacks.
I did not love both movies, or rather I did not love both movies to the extent that critics seem to. But both films did provide a classic moviegoing experience in one crucial way: From minute one until the end credits roll, there is an identifiable hero for whom I found myself rooting, unequivocally and vigorously. For all the talk of TV antiheroes in the mold of Tony Soprano, Walter White, etc., it is refreshing to have two characters such as Ryan Stone and Captain Phillips, for whom their success feels like our reward.