Oscar has spoken. Neither, Leviathan, the Russian film nominated for the best Foreign Language Film, nor American Sniper, nominated for Best Picture, won. Yet both, in a way, are the most representative films of the year, as each captures the essence of why Russia and the United States now seem doomed to wage a new Cold War.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Leviathan faced an uphill public-relations battle. But Leviathan’s bleak portrait of contemporary Russian life actually confirms many of the reasons why Americans have been largely dubious about Russia’s ability to reform following communism’s collapse.
That doubt has been reflected in popular culture. Since 1991, Hollywood has documented American mistrust of post-Soviet Russia in a series of films – for example, The Saint, Airforce One, The Golden Compass of 2006, Salt, and The November Man. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thuggish foreign policy has proved these Russophobes right, so nominating Leviathan, the superb biopsy of his regime, seemed only right.
And, though Oscar did not anoint Leviathan, the film deserves all of the accolades it has received. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev in an eerie style that one might call the “realism of despair,” the film is both epic and deeply nuanced. The title harks back to the book of Job and recalls Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Set in a small town on the Barents Sea, Leviathan shows that there is no escape, not even in the Arctic, from the Moscow-centric state and its hypocritical doppelganger, the Orthodox Church. The giant skeleton of a whale – possibly Leviathan itself – is beached on the shoreline, along with the carcasses of old boats, beneath a severe gray sky that frames a human landscape of political abuse, adultery, lawlessness, and the cynicism of all-powerful priests.
The story, akin to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ambitious 1962 masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, steadily indicts the corruption of state power – a power ever-willing to kill and to align itself with an even more corrupt power, the Orthodox Church. Like communism, which once promised absolution for the worst crimes in exchange for loyalty, Russia’s current state religion allows, even encourages, misdeeds – including murder – so long as one is loyal to God.
Nikolai, Leviathan’s hotheaded main character, sees his life consumed by the fight to save his seashore property from the town’s mayor. “I’ll kill him if he builds a palace here,” shouts Nikolai, in a reference to current Russian leaders’ proclivity for erecting garish monuments to their personal splendor: Putin’s Italianate palace on the Black sea, for example, allegedly cost more than $1 billion.
At the end of his struggle, Nikolai’s life is ruined. His wife is killed, and he stands accused of murdering her for an affair she briefly had with his friend. At the end, we learn that Nikolai was persecuted to make room not for the mayor’s palace, but for a cathedral. Even the Russian clichés – tragedy stemming from overweening power, vodka, swearing, shooting, and shouting – only strengthen the film’s extraordinary depiction of the local effects of distant and devastating forces.
This is Russian politics at its most debased. In Stalin’s time, the masterpieces of, say, Boris Pasternak or Dmitri Shostakovich were entrusted to give artistic voice to a silenced civil society. So it is ironic that Leviathan was partly financed by Russia’s culture ministry – and telling that the Russian authorities had no interest in its winning at the Oscars. Indeed, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky recently criticized the film for its darkness and pessimism.
American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, reflects US mores as much as Leviathan reflects the current Russian Zeitgeist. But, where Leviathan examines Putin’s Russia with the unflinching eye of a surgeon, American Sniper merely trumpets supposed national values with no consideration of their application around the world.
During four tours in Iraq as a soldier/missionary, a stand-up Texan, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) becomes known as Legend, a killer with a savior complex. American Sniper, loosely based on Kyle’s memoir, touts the frontier mentality – a neo-cowboy movie made by a former cowboy-movie star.
Just as Leviathan shows a Russia caught in the throes of a political nightmare, American Sniper shows a country trapped by its heroic mythology – defined in countless Western movies – of rugged individualism at home and defense of freedom and order abroad.
But the world has changed, and many no longer view America’s global role as an expression of its unique innocence and goodness. Given everything we have learned about the Iraq War – false claims about weapons of mass destruction, nonexistent links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and so on – Eastwood’s film comes across as a work of marketing, not reflection and contemplation. Eastwood has merely updated his earlier films – think The Outlaw Josey Wales or Pale Rider – with their unwavering conviction that America’s god of righteousness must prevail.
In short, American Sniper fails where Levitathan succeeds. George Orwell neatly summarized why: “All propaganda is a lie even when it’s telling the truth.”
- Nina L. Khrushcheva
The granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia between Art and Politics and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, is a cultural historian and political commentator. She teaches international affairs at The New School and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015