In a last-minute Brokeback setback, many analysts now predict the Best Picture Oscar will go to Crash. There’s also a stronger current against Crash now than when it opened. But it isn’t a case of controversy proving a movie’s worth. Disputes don’t arise over Crash’s complexity and motives; they’re about whether the film is spectacular or worthless. General support just indicates which group is yelling loudest.
Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg’s Munich has been reduced to an Oscar longshot, despite trumping Crash at its own game. If voters want to prove they’re enlightened with a hot-topic issue movie, why not go further and pick the one that considers issues through great artistry?
Crash is too easy. For his would-be expose of racist attitudes in contemporary LA, writer/director Paul Haggis lets his audience stand above his subjects. As characters viciously berate each other with textbook putdowns, Haggis’ overt take misidentifies how most prejudice manifests unaware, cruelly. This in-your-face technique lets viewers off safely by never making the bold, necessary step of allowing self-identification. The danger is that the issue of racial hatred becomes something foreign. “Well, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” audiences can assure themselves. That’s why Crash is essentially anti-human. Its one good scene involves a Spanish locksmith (Michael Pena) consoling his traumatized daughter that she’s safe from gun violence. The rest falls for a trap of two-dimensional art: it shows how different people are different than us, rather than how different people are the same as us.
What justifies the scene where two black men (Ludacris and Larenz Tate) complain that white people cross the street to avoid them, only to show them carjack a couple moments later? Crash acknowledges stereotypes while perpetuating them.
As the duo later engage in a debate on whether rap music oppresses blacks, the argument plays as the thoughts of a disconnected 50-year-old white guy. Haggis doesn’t consider hip-hop (curiously absent from the rest of Crash’s soundtrack) for its major impact in drawing multi-ethnic interest to black culture. The dubious approach instills the idea that racial harmony is up to white characters becoming the saviours of ethnic minorities —first as Matt Dillon’s racist cop rescues the woman he molested (Thandie Newton) from a burning car, and then as Ryan Phillippe saves Terrence Howard from possible incarceration. That’s too condescending to be powerful. In Haggis’ world, different races scream at each other non-stop for their poor driving skills and for secretly planning the Jihad. Characters in his film are incapable of interracial communication without the pretext of racial difference.
Funny how a major criticism flung at Munich is the equity in humanizing the Israeli and Palestinian characters. Spielberg places viewers in the thrilling grip of his Mossad assassins, only to reply with empathy for their Palestinian targets. Racial divide isn’t at the front of anyone’s mind—not Spielberg’s, not the attentive viewer’s and (most of the time) not the assassins’. Munich shows that the very root of intolerance is insane by boiling all aspirations to a shared human longing: the ideal of something to call home. It’s where Avner (Eric Bana) hopes to return. His sex scene with his wife (Ayelet Zorer) isn’t an academic juxtaposition of sex and violence. Interspersed with hallucinations of the gruesome murder of the Olympic athletes, there’s no pleasure in Avner’s sex. It’s just conflated as the next assignment. When his wife whispers, “I love you,” he collapses in shame. The words have lost their meaning.
Crash never comes close to illustrating the effect supporting corrupt beliefs has on the soul. Nobody is born racist. But Crash views racism as something everyone should grow out of, rather than a sickness some people grow into. Haggis’ technique is pure Screenwriting 101: every scene that begins on a hopeful note has a negative turnaround, every character at first viewed positively will do something bad, and vice versa. Trite formula masks incredulous coincidences, meetings and turnarounds. It’s a poor variation on the intersecting fate in Altman films and Pulp Fiction.
Rather than deny formula, Munich embraces and subverts it. It has the familial intrigue and violence of The Godfather, only to pull the rug away—showing genre tropes can speak to us spiritually, politically. Crash only instills superiority toward the bigotry of everyone on screen. Even with the Oscars’ usual failure to consider the longevity of the films it champions, the bar needn’t sink this low. Great movies don’t think in black and white.
The academy awards air March 5.