Oscars-worthy: dramatised acts of giving don’t redeem Hollywood

Tom Hanks stars in the Best Picture-nominated film, Captain Phillips. Can Hollywood dish out moral lessons? EPA/Warren Toda

It’s Oscars season and there’s plenty of controversy, as usual, about what’s made the cut and what hasn’t. But I want to focus on what will be the most dramatised moment of Sunday’s award ceremony: the giving of gifts.

The symbolism of gift-giving at the Academy Awards is not simply decorative. It has a central place within the Hollywood system, and the sincerity of offering something to others without expectation of recompense has long entranced voting members of the Academy.

Consider Jack’s sketched gift to Rose framing the narrative in Titanic (Best Picture, 1997) or Anthony’s “gift” to emancipated migrant workers closing Crash (Best Picture, 2005), or yet again, those many Best Picture winners featuring sacrificial gifts for others: Maximus for the slaves in Gladiator (2000), Salim for Jamal and Latika in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the entire Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in The Hurt Locker (2009), and Tony Mendez’s valiant fight for hostages in Argo (2012).

From Ancient Rome to Mumbai to the Middle-East and, well, the Middle-East again, social barriers are overcome by the generosity of those who give.

The 2014 Oscar gifts

The films nominated for the 86th Best Picture award provide further examples.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughney) becomes an unlikely, and at first reluctant, hero for the provision of HIV/AIDS health services.

Trailer for Dallas Buyers Club.

In 12 Years a Slave, a shopkeeper from Saratoga (BRAD) volunteers the gift of freedom to a brutalised Solomon Northup. Across the Atlantic, Martin Sixsmith’s profit-motive is tempered by the benevolence and clemency of Philomena.

And finally, in addition to offering priceless wisdom to anyone in earshot, cargo-ship Captain Phillips sacrifices himself to save the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates, the latter having little concern for law, courtesy, or morality.

No strings attached?

So, what is the purpose of the gift?

In a country historically shaped by rhetorical opposition to totalitarianism, the awesome structures of Hollywood’s Big Six – Columbia, Warner Bros, Disney, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount – resemble a self-interested oligarchy, complete with invisible autocrats and centralised planning.

Richard Harbaugh/Ho/EPA

Perhaps by organising its most spectacular annual event around the act of giving, the Hollywood majors can reconcile the generous moral content of its most celebrated films with the commercial forms of contemporary film production and distribution.

When a Britannia metal statuette is handed to a grateful Oscar winner, one can make believe that the generosity guiding Hollywood’s protagonists is also guiding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Gift-giving has, however, recently lost some of its lustre.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, audiences around the world are now scrutinising who exactly gives what to whom, for what purpose, and to what end. When does a gift become a concealed incentive in breach of antitrust laws? Or, just as importantly, when does an individual have the right to claim a gift from those most able to give?

Gravity’s gifts

Consider the visually stunning Best Picture nominee, Gravity.

In a harrowing ordeal, astronaut Dr Ryan Stone receives three life-saving gifts, firstly from astronaut Matt Kowalski, then from an unoccupied International Space Station, then finally from a space station (again, unoccupied) belonging to China.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock at the New York premiere of Gravity last year. Jason Szenes/EPA

Despite first appearances, Gravity’s heroic astronaut is less the courageous individual from Captain Phillips than a zero-G pirate who takes what she wants, with no thought for law or courtesy or morality. After all, the situation is dire and the clock is ticking.

The narrative resemblances between Gravity and Captain Phillips are obscured by experiential similarities in the protagonists’ struggles to survive, but make no mistake: the astronaut Ryan Stone is very close to Captain Phillips’ Somali villain Abduwali Muse, whose living counterpart is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence.

What can be learnt about gift-giving from Gravity and Captain Phillips?

Pirates and gifts to Somalia

Well, let’s imagine that Somali pirates are asking for “gifts” to the tune of US$10m, as described in Captain Phillips. Let’s then recall that this sum represents 127th of the collected gross Box Office profits for the Best Picture nominees (roughly US$1.37 billion).

Finally, notice that from World Bank and Central Bank of Somalia estimates these aggregated ticket sales represent 85.5% of the yearly income for Somalia’s poorest 43% (themselves living on less than US$1 a day).

Trailer for Captain Phillips.

What, in this context, would count as the most sanctionable gift: a loaded cargo-ship making its way around the Horn of Africa, or a film about a loaded cargo-ship making its way around the Horn of Africa?

I don’t have an answer because the question is absurd.

The lesson is simply that, setting Hollywood superstitions aside, what counts as a gift is mostly decided by politics, not divine moral intuition.

The Academy could be accused of being too commercial, too compromised and too calculating in its semi-veiled promotions for blockbuster films. But this is not my point here. The problem is the formulaic celebration of gift-giving and self-sacrifice, themes that create the effect of moral drama without requiring any original statement of ethical problems.

An exception could have been Dallas Buyers Club, although its most intriguing moments point beyond the morally reformed Woodroof to a surrounding cast of HIV/AIDS patients who struggle for adequate screen time and are given next to nothing.

Too many Oscar-nominated films tell us to behave as members of the Academy do: give to the world, yes, but do not attempt to understand it. And an ethics of giving without understanding is no ethics at all.

This year’s Best Picture favourites could have asked some interesting questions: what is actually happening in Somalia? Why did both Northern and Southern States continue to undermine black communities after the Civil War? And are risky Wall Street practices really driven by the over-supply of handsome, charismatic men?

Just don’t look to this year’s Best Picture winner for the answers.

See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.