Freedom at the Oscars


It’s Oscar time in Hollywood, and this year’s Best Picture nominees rangefrom ancient Rome to the contemporary war on drugs to a Chinese‐​languagemartial arts film. One of the Best Supporting Actor nominees played his rolealmost entirely in Spanish. If that represents our increasing access totalent and creativity from all over the world, it’s an illustration of thebenefits that globalization brings.

Many of this year’s nominees also involve the theme of individual freedom.That isn’t always true in Hollywood. Movies and moviemakers often seemhostile to individual liberty. Movies disparaging business and celebratingcommunist rebels have been particularly popular.

But not this year.

Leading the field with 12 nominations – including Best Picture, BestDirector and Best Actor — is “Gladiator,” an old‐​fashioned Roman epic withlots of blood and gore. The underlying theme is republicanism, a Romanidea that inspired the American Founders. Russell Crowe plays a farmer wholeaves his home and family to defend Rome on the battlefield, and then isasked by the dying emperor to save the nation from a prospective tyrant.Throughout his travails he wants nothing more than to finish his service tohis country, put down the reins of power, and return to his private life.That ideal also motivated George Washington and other Founders, and indeedwe find the same theme in a movie that didn’t get many nominations – “ThePatriot,” starring Mel Gibson as a South Carolina farmer who reluctantlyleaves hearth and home to fight in the American Revolution.

Another movie with libertarian themes is Best Picture nominee “Traffic,“Steven Soderbergh’s depressing take on the drug war. From Washington tomiddle America to Tijuana, the movie tells us that the government isn’twinning, and can’t win, the war on drugs. It’s government failure in starkrelief, with human casualties all around.

A happier, more mystical view of freedom is found in another Best Picturenominee, “Chocolat,” starring Juliette Binoche, nominated for Best Actress.Binoche is an itinerant chocolate maker who drifts into a small French townwith the north wind. She sets up a chocolate shop and fills the window withthe most beautiful and sinfully delicious candies in movie memory. But forthe town’s mayor, “sinful” is the operative word. Browbeating the localpriest into going along with him, he declares that people aren’t supposed tohave so much fun and forbids the townspeople to enter the chocolaterie. Oneby one, a few of the villagers – especially those who weren’t doing so wellunder the old rules – venture into the shop and are transformed by thewicked delicacies. Marriages improve, family splits heal themselves, andwomen find the self‐​confidence to make their own decisions.

Not every movie about freedom was nominated for Best Picture – though it’sstriking that three of them were – but some others picked up actingnominations. Javier Bardem received a Best Actor nomination for “BeforeNight Falls,” an artistic film based on the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, a gayCuban writer who escaped from Castro’s tyranny. Julie Walters won a BestSupporting Actress nod for her scene‐​stealing role as the ballet teacher in“Billy Elliott,” a British film about a boy who wants to escape the failingcoal mines and become a dancer. As in the American movie “October Sky,” hehas to overcome the opposition of a father who has spent his whole life inthe pits and thinks the same life should be good enough for his son.

There are two major disappointments for libertarians in the Academy Awardselections. First is the multiple nominations for “Erin Brockovich,” awell‐​made film that should win the Junk Science Award but may well be theacademy’s Best Picture, with Julia Roberts a likely pick for Best Actress.

The second disappointment is that the academy overlooked the beautiful andmoving “Sunshine,” a sweeping epic of three generations in 20th centuryHungary. Ralph Fiennes delivers a tour de force as father, son, andgrandson living through the Habsburg Empire, the fascist period, thecommunist era, and finally emerging into the post‐​communist and hopefullyfree world. He and the movie were nominated for Golden Globe Awards. It’sa real shame that such a film is going to be ignored on Oscar night.

Still, in a world where movies have often been decidedly anti‐​freedom, thisyear is a refreshing change. With themes like individualism, socialmobility, anti‐​communism, patriotism, and the failure of the drug war ondisplay, Oscar night should be more fun than ever.