The Oscars always come with their share of surprises – They nominated who? They didn’t nominate that? – so I don’t want to be so hyperbolic as to say that this year, of all years, provided the biggest Best Picture shock. Still, when Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually was read out, it is safe to say there was a pretty big “What?” by critics and moviegoers (who didn’t exactly flock to it, and who undoubtedly had at least heard of Shame) alike.
Extremely Loud is said to be the worst reviewed film to ever be nominated for Best Picture. (Paste Magazine did some Metacritic number crunching and provides a fairly solid argument for it being one of the worst in at least 28 years. Your mileage may vary -- sadly, movie reviewing is just not an exact science.) Now, I don’t want to dismiss any critic or moviegoer who liked the film, but even those favorable to it have to admit it’s an awfully strange pick. It hasn’t been widely talked about. Even War Horse sparked more debate. Extremely Loud just… happened. And then was nominated for Best Picture. Why?
Well, I think the answer may be embarrassingly simple. I think it is because it is a 9/11 movie.
Think back over Oscars past. There was an observation, crudely and often awkwardly put, that if you made a film or documentary about the Holocaust, you were guaranteed to score a nomination. In fact, you were often a shoo-in for the win. This wasn’t something you could say too loudly without being scolded. But then Extras and Kate Winslet spoofed it, and it was suddenly a little more OK to talk about. I’m sure that sudden relaxation is also why we have also seen a shift away from the “Here, just take it!” awards given to Holocaust stories.
I understand why critics and award voters had such a knee jerk response to such onscreen stories. The Holocaust is an appallingly recent tragedy. It’s not something we, as a world, have (or probably will ever) come to terms with. It’s not something to ever be understood, and even those who are too young or too far removed to have ever played a part in it feel guilty. So here, take an Oscar and a Golden Globe, because at least we can acknowledge the story we just watched was a horrific one, worthy of being watched and talked about.
9/11 can’t (and should never be) compared to the Holocaust, but it’s another event for which we have no real answer, and I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of knee-jerk prizes given to films that feature it. This isn’t a blanket guarantee. The far superior United 93 was shut out of awards in 2007, probably because it was low-budget, full of no-name actors, and just close enough to 2001 to be too uncomfortable for many voters to watch. The star-studded World Trade Center was also shut out despite receiving better (albeit mixed) reviews from critics, who largely cried Too Soon and Why Do We Need It, both valid reasons to knock it out of the running. It was too soon for both films, regardless of their merits. I think the automatic accolades need a bit of distance and historical context to occur. It took until 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank – a full 14 years after the end of World War 2 – for the first Holocaust film to be nominated for Best Picture, though cinema – world and American -- was tackling the subject almost immediately. (At least three 1940s American films – The Stranger, The Search, and The Juggler feature Holocaust related stories, but only The Search received any major award attention, and it still was denied Best Picture. If you think about it, Frank is probably the Extremely Loud of Holocaust stories. It's the safest version of the topic you could hope for, and one of the most "comfortably" sad given that it ends before we have to deal with Frank in the camp. (Given that her diary was censored until just recently, it was even more palatable for the 1950s than any other Holocaust story.)
Timing, I think, is why Extremely Loud skirted in. The timing is right. The stars, the director, and the author-whose-novel-inspired-it are all safely acclaimed and beloved. It’s fiction, which provides a safety net against claims of inaccuracy or pandering. (It’s also tasteful fiction, as opposed to Remember Me, which used it with an almost fiendish glee.) It can be argued to serve as a metaphor for the post-9/11 America, and Best Picture nominees love metaphor almost as much as they love the adorably disabled like its gifted protagonist.
Will Extremely Loud be the first of a decade or more of rote nominations to films that deal with 9/11 with anything approaching sensitivity? Yes, I think so. I hope not. We all watched it happen live. It seems beyond useless to keep recreating it on film.