The 81st annual Academy Awards ceremony took place Feb. 22, 2009, and as always there were plenty of religious issues to provide a substantive backdrop to the red-carpet glam.
Films have long grappled with questions of ultimate meaning, and 2009’s crop was no exception. Whether the more overtly religious Doubt, based on John Patrick Shanley’s Broadway production, or the “life is beautiful” fantasy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, there was a lot of potential for out-of-the-box stories. Frost/Nixon explored moral ambiguity, and The Wrestler is a redemption tale both for the main character and for its real-life actor, Mickey Rourke.
- The most overtly Christian movie of the year may have been Fireproof, the drama of a firefighter, his failing marriage and his discovery of faith in God. The film’s themes are understandably Christian, as this was the second production from Sherwood Pictures, the film company of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., whose first film, Facing the Giants, won unexpected acclaim in 2006. Fireproof was the highest-grossing independent film of 2008, and once again the supporting cast was made up of volunteers from the church.
- Other films engaged Christian themes, though in more ambiguous tones. Gran Torino, one of Clint Eastwood’s latest movies pondering the place of violence in America, was left off all the Oscar lists—but that made the film an especially attractive topic for journalists searching for overlooked stories, and for religious themes in films that never consciously invoke a particular dogma. For example, Eastwood’s grouchy protagonist Walt Kowalski, a foul-mouthed, beer-chugging, church-abstaining bigot, is an unlikely man of virtue. But—spoiler alert!—that’s exactly what he becomes.
- Doubt, which received five nominations, includes a sermon by Father Flynn on how a community can be bound together by doubt as well as by certainty. This can be used as a launching point for a story on the role of doubt in belief, and whether the two can coexist.
- Much has been written about Heath Ledger’s remarkable performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and the late actor won Best Supporting Actor. But the movie also has much to say about truth, justice and the nature of heroism. Can we have pure ideals in a world filled with terrorists and torture?
- Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture. The rags-to-riches love story was nominated for 10 Oscars. And according to a review in EthicsDaily.com, Slumdog is the archetypal American narrative, despite its setting in Mumbai, India. Moreover, the hero of the year’s biggest movie is a Muslim.
- Sean Penn won Best Actor for his portrayal of the openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was gunned down by a man portrayed in the film Milk as a devout Catholic. The film opened in the wake of California’s Proposition 8 battle, and the religious and political resonances are hard to miss.