We live in an escapist society. Given the past few years of a slowly recovering job market and a major health care system overhaul, it’s not surprising that Americans are willing to fork over 13 bucks for an adventure that only Hollywood could deliver.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Academy Awards this year. The movies got real.
The words “based on a true story” came up more often than usual and attracted plenty of moviegoers. The Academy took notice, bestowing six of the nine Best Picture nominations on films derived from real events. From a cowboy working outside of the health care system to save himself and others with illegal medications, to a captain working outside the system to save his crew from Somali pirates, the movies were an inspirational turn away from the gloomy reality of the 6 o’clock news.
Why did we flock to films that dramatized the very facts of our existence that frustrated us the most? The answer is simple: We wanted a better ending than what we were left with in reality. Two films in particular stand out for their focus on one person facing impossible odds.
David vs. Goliath — in Texas
Take Dallas Buyers Club, a film that earned two of its actors the coveted Oscar statuette. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a drug-addicted, womanizing bigot who is given 30 days to live after a 1985 HIV diagnosis. Determined to survive, he studies up on the virus and runs to his doctor for the medication that would prolong his life, only to be shot down by hospital bureaucracy and FDA red tape. So he ventures into Mexico, where an American doctor hooks him up with vitamins and meds that can strengthen his immune response to the virus.
Then Woodroof goes further by bringing the non-FDA-approved drugs back into Texas to start to sell to other people living with HIV. He starts a subscription-based buyers club with a transgender woman named Rayon (played by Jared Leto). He begins to overcome his prejudice toward gays, lesbians and transgender people while fighting the good fight against the FDA, which tries to shut down Woodroof and Co. at every turn.
Woodroof’s story would be popular with the public and Academy voters at a time when the botched launch of healthcare.gov is still fresh in people’s minds. The film shows one man reaping the benefits of his own initiative and finding a path to survival by himself — outside of the regular, legal channels. Even the hardest-to-reach bigot can become an ally to the LGBT community.
Unemployment at sea
Another Academy-nominated motion picture that took on a hotly debated topic was Captain Phillips. At face value, the film is about a hijacking gone wrong involving Somali pirates and the captain of an unarmed ship. In reality, audiences were watching a thinly veiled story about unemployment and what it means to be a boss.
At the beginning of the film, we see the title character Phillips (expertly portrayed by Tom Hanks) and his wife discuss matters of the home, including his concerns about their son’s lack of interest in his schoolwork. As Phillips notes that there are 50 people for every job, worrying that his son won’t measure up to the competition, we cut to a Somalian beach filled with hundreds of starving, jobless African men begging to be chosen for the next team of hijackers to hunt for a ship.
The movie stays true to its themes without calling too much attention to them, allowing the audience to draw parallels as events unfold. Between shedding light on the mindset of an unemployed man with no options (Captain Phillips comments that “there must be something better than kidnapping people,” to which the captain of the pirates replies “Maybe in America.”) and calling attention to the pressures of working for someone else (“I got bosses. They got rules,” the pirate captain tells Phillips after he turns down an offer from American hostage negotiators), the film is both an adventure and a cautionary tale where no one is left off the hook. There are risk-takers on both sides, but in the end, the power and weapons of the United States Navy triumph over the Somali pirates who dared to kidnap an American captain.
In reality, the AIDS epidemic claimed millions of lives before better drugs were available to transform the virus from a death sentence into a manageable condition. And for each story of a successful rescue facilitated by the U.S. government, there are many instances where American hostages were killed by their captors before military forces could intervene.
Controversy over the accuracy of the main characters has also surrounded both films. It’s been alleged that Ron Woodroof was bisexual and harbored no hatred towards gays, while the real Captain Phillips is painted in a different light according to lawsuits brought by his crew. Separate suits in Alabama and Texas claim the captain blatantly disregarded warnings to sail the MV Maersk Alabama at a distance of at least 600 miles off the Somali coast and that, by sailing 250 miles off-coast to cut down on travel time and fuel costs, he put the ship directly in the path of pirates.
For audiences who experienced Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, the pleasure came from watching a cowboy with a lust for life and a by-the-book captain who escaped pirates take risks and be rewarded for their efforts. Nothing gets an audience on its feet like the victory of an underdog.
For the non-believers, a visit to the ultimate cinematic underdog monument outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is highly recommended.