After several years in which the Academy Awards felt like an auxiliary of Trump-era progressivism, this year’s nominated movies are about as unwoke as modern Hollywood gets: a raft of “dad movies” about mobsters, cars, and war, plus the infamous Joker and Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece of hippie-punching (and worse than punching), Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.
Regrettably, not every movie in this semi-reactionary renaissance is actually good. Martin Scorsese’s much-nominated The Irishman was doomed by its terrible, CGI-enabled lead performance, while the even-more-nominated Joker is fascinating mostly for what the culture has read into it, since on its own it’s just a comic-book homage to better Scorsese movies from the past.
So I have some mild sympathy for one of the Twitter meltdowns that greeted the Oscar announcements, the outrage when Greta Gerwig was denied a Best Director nomination for her Little Women adaptation. Sure, you can make a case that Gerwig wasn’t one of the year’s five best directors, but in a slate of nominees so heavy with guy movies, a little more female representation wouldn’t hurt. More important, you can make a case that Gerwig was less deserving than Scorsese and Joker’s Todd Phillips, but you’d be wildly wrong, and to nominate them both instead of her is a failure of aesthetic appreciation as well as of show building.
My own pick for Best Picture, out of the available nominees, would be Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time, certainly the most Academy-friendly movie he’ll ever make. But the unwise slight to Gerwig and the fact that Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917 is cleaning up at pre-Oscar awards shows suggest a different path the Academy could take (even if, yes, the show’s voting rules make it technically impossible): In our polarized times, with even the genders divided against each other, a joint Best Picture for Little Women and 1917 is the balm our nation needs.
That the regular adaptations of Alcott’s novel are for women while movies about one group of grunts trying to save another group of grunts are for guys is a truth near universally understood. (Yes, I know there was a push to get men and women to go see Gerwig’s movie in equal numbers; I said “near universally.”) But as if to prove that the gulf between the sexes really is widening, both 1917 and Little Women go slightly further than their antecedents in defeminizing and demasculinizing their respective tales.
The Mendes movie’s clearest antecedents are Saving Private Ryan and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. From Private Ryan Mendes takes the idea of using a small family-driven mission to illuminate and focus a grander military campaign: His tale of the trenches sends two British corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Scofield (George MacKay), on a mission into no-man’s-land to warn an advancing regiment, cut off from telephone communication, that aerial surveillance has shown they’re heading into a trap — with the twist being that the imperiled regiment includes Blake’s own brother. From Gibson’s pounding there-and-back-again story, meanwhile, Mendes takes the idea of constant movement, and stripped-down, against-the-clock racing, as the way to tell his story, with everything inessential pared away.
But both Apocalypto and Private Ryan gave us scenes of a female sphere beyond the world of war, even if in the latter it was just a shot of Mrs. Ryan collapsing outside her kitchen at the news of all her dead boys. 1917 is more stripped-down even than that, reserving its one domestic gesture for the final shot and exceeding even Gibson’s propulsion by filming the whole mission as a single shot, so that at times it resembles a variation on Call of Duty and its first-person-shooter ilk. Even allowing for the brief intrusion of a young Frenchwoman and a baby, the result is one of the most guy-ish war movies that I’ve ever seen.
In Little Women, meanwhile, the masculinity quotient is diminished relative to the Winona Ryder version back in 1994 by Gerwig’s casting of Jo March’s love interests — the substitution of the pale, malnourished, emo Timothée Chalamet for Christian Bale as Laurie and a young French hottie, Louis Garrel, for Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer. Chalamet is okay for Laurie’s teenaged phase, and Gerwig has every right to make Bhaer a little hotter than the middle-aged duffer in the book. But Byrne was hot in his way too, and he and Bale between them gave the ’90s adaptation a small but palpable dose of actual machismo that’s mostly absent in Gerwig’s variation.
That absence is a fault in the movie, as the first-person-shooter vibe of 1917 is a fault, but even if they feel just a little bit too gendered, both movies are still successful. I slightly prefer Ryder’s Jo to Saoirse Ronan’s version, but Florence Pugh is so terrific as Amy that she almost makes the most disliked March sister the heroine, and Gerwig’s decision to nest the familiar story in flashbacks is interesting and novel even if it doesn’t always work. Meanwhile, I sat through Mendes’s movie noting the faults and gimmicks and video-game moments, but there are also scenes of surpassing power, and by the last 15 minutes I was rapt.
Does 1917 deserve the Oscar more than Christopher Nolan’s similar and richer Dunkirk, passed over for the execrable The Shape of Water two years back? No more than Little Women deserves Best Picture over Lady Bird or Arrival or The Favourite, to pick some recent female-dominated nominees. But as co-winners, I submit, they would effectively cancel out each other’s flaws and deliver a rare satisfaction that spans the most primal division in the human race.
This article appears as “Battle of the Sexes” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.