From the most commercial movies to the artiest of arthouse fare, all of the year’s best picture Oscar nominees have one thing in common: themes of power struggles and an anti-authoritarian streak. This reporter spoke with the filmmakers behind “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “Elvis,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Fabelmans,” “Tár,” “Triangle of Sadness” and “Women Talking” about how they explored these topics and why they’re so relevant today.
“Our world is at an inflection point where we’re questioning hierarchical power,” says “Tár” writer-director Todd Field. “There’s a reason we’re seeing movements against authority and people that have held power: for a long time, no one questioned it.”
“Women Talking” producer Dede Gardner feels that “reckoning with authoritarian thinking, power structures and behavior systems is the issue of our day. I think it’s scaring people [because] we don’t know what to do about it, and it’s coming out of places we never expected.”
Those include the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements, onetime Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney reportedly “reckoning with what he considers his party’s slide toward authoritarianism,” new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rising levels of prejudice and police brutality. But in a few cases, art imitating life is an unfortunate coincidence.
“I don’t think we knew that our movie would be coming out at the same time our former president was having a dinner with a Holocaust denier and an unmedicated bipolar anti-Semite rapper,” says “The Fabelmans” producer/co-writer Tony Kushner.
Even the third top-grossing film in history is addressing these issues. “We think that we have a responsibility in making the ‘Avatar’ films to shine a mirror on ourselves as a global community,” says Jon Landau, who produced “Avatar: The Way of Water” with director/co-writer James Cameron. “The idea of imperial forces with heavy weapons trying to take over and destroy the natural resources of a planet, [leading to] an uprising from the Indigenous population, is a very important theme and message to have resonated.”
And it already has. “Our distributor in Ukraine, who said that it’s going to become the highest-grossing movie of all time there, [said Ukranians] go to see a movie where brute military forces come in and Indigenous people fight back, and it gives them inspiration for what they’re going through.”
Other aspects of the sequel, in which the Resources Development Administration returns to colonize the moon Pandora and mine natural resources for a dying earth, also mirror issues ripped from today’s headlines. “The Sully [family members] become refugees seeking safe haven from a culture, [but] they’re all Na’vi,” the Indigenous characters in the film. “What we’re trying to do is take inspiration from all the Indigenous cultures around the world, and remind people that we have a responsibility to preserve their cultures, their histories, and to celebrate what their value is in society.”
The musical biopic “Elvis” is another hit that delves into these themes. “No one’s ever focused on that aspect of the film, and that’s primarily why I did it,” says director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann, who produced it with Catherine Martin, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss. “The subtext is exploring America in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and if you do that, you can’t avoid power structures between the ‘sell’ and the ‘soul.’ The soul, or the art, is the Elvis character, and the sell is the Colonel [Tom Parker] character. When they are in balance, it works. But when selling overtakes the art, and it’s only about how many coffee cups can I get [Elvis’] face on, you get this incredible corruption.”
Luhrmann based examples of this on unreleased material he found in Presley’s archives, including Elvis patiently waiting for the Colonel to stop talking about merchandising items to his concert audience. “Steve Binder [who directed Elvis’ 1968 comeback special] said, ‘I’ve never understood why so many people remained so fearful of Parker, even people with power.’ I think he was kind of a [J. Edgar] Hoover-esque character. He had a great ability to have something on everybody, and to manipulate a room,” he says.
Yet the anti-authoritarian theme in “Elvis” may be embodied most powerfully in the subject himself. “You cannot overstate what a threat Elvis was seen as to the white establishment and those that were anti-desegregation, because he was blending Black music and country music,” Luhrmann adds. “It became a political issue. They wanted to put him in jail, and the Colonel’s plot was, ‘We’ll send him off to the army, bring him back and make him a nice family entertainer.’ But Elvis never stopped his relationships with Black artists. I mean, James Brown was at his funeral.”
A few nominees made these themes the main foundation of their films. One is “Tár,” which shows the downfall of a fictional conductor, played by Cate Blanchett. “I’d always thought of the character as a woman, probably because most of us are so certain how we’re supposed to feel about the white male patriarchal abuse of power, because we see it in our lives every day, [but that’s] a huge impediment to examining it,” says Field, who produced “Tár” with Alexandra Milchan and Scott Lambert. “I wanted the fact that the character is female [to be] a given, and in that way it’s a fairy tale, a parable. This was important to [be able to] look at: what is the intoxicating factor of patriarchal power? Why is it so consistent? Why do people want it, and what does it do to the person that holds it?”
Field also worked to dramatize this visually. “The great editor Monika Willi and I were together seven days a week. Our aim was to build this thing as a way to examine power, at least as one might be able to within the lens of a feature film,” he says, citing a scene where writer Adam Gopnik interviews Tár at the New Yorker Festival. “The idea was to allow her to hold the floor as long as possible, as a display of mastery and dominance.”
Another example is when Tár is seen at the first orchestra rehearsal. Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister “had a strict set of rules for how we wanted to photograph these scenes, neutral and unadorned, so that it demands that you lean in. However, as an afterthought, I put an 18mm lens on the camera, dropped it on a shot-bag and did one full take. It is the most extreme angle in the film and broke that rule, but as the first angle [shown] in that rehearsal, Monika and I felt it was essential and didn’t contradict the rules that followed. That angle is important in that she’s literally throwing thunderbolts down toward the camera, probably the most exalted state for this character. This is what we were looking for throughout the edit: the scaffolding of power, and the way in which it ascends and descends.
“There’s never been a woman who’s held a principal conductor post of a major German orchestra, or one of the so-called ‘big-five’”’ American orchestras. That’s only happened in this movie,” Field adds. “That’s the other side of the coin: Why has no woman held that power? It’s one of the questions that we wanted to ask.”
Another film that dives deep into these topics is Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” the story of Mennonite women who debate their future after violent attacks by men in their community. It’s based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel and begins with a caption from the book’s prologue: “What follows is an act of female imagination.”
“We were interested in the idea of imagining a new future, as opposed to spending time adjudicating the past,” says Gardner, who produced it with Jeremy Kleiner and the film’s co-star, Frances McDormand, who brought the book to Garner. “It presents people who’ve come to realize that in order to stay true to their faith with integrity, they must question power systems that have grown up around them. [We wanted to] engender hope, and the idea that conversation and changing one’s mind is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of commitment to the collective.”
The novel was loosely inspired by real attacks in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in 2009. “Miriam’s book, rather than being based on the events, is a response to them in solidarity with the people who went through them,” Gardner explains. “We wanted the movie to stand in similar solidarity, so you don’t see the events or the men being taken to prison, [just] the aftermath. In the real-life event, when the women started to talk about what had been happening to them, [they were told] ‘Your faith isn’t strong enough,’ ‘This was the act of Satan’ and ‘This is female imagination.’ So [the film] is a way to reclaim the power of that, which has been so criminally misdirected as an accusation.”
Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale “The Fabelmans” has fewer than 10 minutes of screen time depicting antisemitic acts, but they’re memorable ones, such as when the young lead character Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) finds a bagel with a slur written on it, hanging on a noose in his locker.
“I’m pretty sure the bagel thing happened to Steven,” says Kushner, who co-wrote the film with Spielberg and produced it with him and Kristie Macosko Krieger. “He had one antisemitic bully. Growing up in Louisiana, I had two, and the two in the film are a little more modeled on my two than Steven’s. It’s one of the ways Steven and I bonded when we worked on [the 2005 Israeli hostage drama] ‘Munich.’ But there was never a sense that he felt his life was shaped by it. We didn’t set out do a deep exploration of antisemitism, and wouldn’t want to say, ‘This is a statement about the horrors of it.’ The Fabelmans are proud of their identity, and they’re not apologizing for it or eager to assimilate. As was true with Steven, me, my sister and my brother, Sammy is well armed for the encounters because of his pride in his Jewishness.”
Another theme is anti-feminism, found in the thwarted ambitions of the matriarch, Mitzi (Michelle Williams). “This was right before Betty Friedan [wrote ‘The Feminine Mystique.’] It was a time when there was a sense that [a woman] could have a career, and they were also probably going to get punished for it. If you made a decision to do something other than be a good mother and a good wife, among the women of that generation, there would be a kind of ambivalent support for it, but also a certain amount of disapproval or animus. I think Steven’s mother and my mother struggled with that a while.”
Familial expectations also play a big role in writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Defining the issues of characters who travel from a Chinese immigrant-owned Laundromat to an IRS office audit and into a multiverse is complicated, but Jonathan Wang, who produced it with the Daniels, is well up to the task. Themes of anti-authoritarianism and power imbalances are “something Daniels and I think about constantly,” Wang says. “There’s the narrative structure, and there’s the way that we chose to make it — [not basing] people’s value on their job title — that actively go against some of the power systems within our industry.”
In the film, “the one that’s most apparent is fighting against the tyranny of violence. What does it look like if you end an action movie with a pacifistic fight instead of a violent one? It creates a possible universe wherein action movies can end without violence.”
Another one is battling parental authority. “A lot of what our characters are doing – not only Joy / Jubu (Stephanie Hsu), but also Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) – is fighting the expectations and burdens of the previous generation, and traumas that they have passed on to their kids. The movie is trying to break us free of that perspective by putting us into another world, wherein we can see our family [outside of their] ideologies, as whole humans we can actively love.”
Though Wang didn’t write the screenplay, it mirrors his own story. “My grandfather had to flee mainland China [during] the Cultural Revolution and went to Taiwan, where all he was doing was meeting his children’s basic needs to keep them alive. And when my father left Taiwan to come to America, [it became] about pursuing the American dream, wanting your kids to be successful and assimilate. I feel both of those things as pressure to live up to these expectations and not squander these opportunities, but also have this real longing that they would’ve cared more about my emotional needs. These are all little revolutions that we fight against previous generations as we try to pave a new path, and I think the movie is a testament to this.”
Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” follows two lifelong pals from a small Irish island whose lives descend into chaos when Colm (Brendan Gleeson) tells Pádraic (Colin Farrell) that he wants to end their friendship so he can devote more time to writing music.
“It’s very beautiful and funny, but it’s a breakup movie, about the breakup of a platonic friendship,” says Graham Broadbent, who produced it with Pete Czernin and McDonagh. “Colm seems to hold all the power – he bars communication and things get very drastic. Pádraic is the victim, to a degree, and it’s a wild power imbalance because he doesn’t hold any cards to play. When any of us get broken up with, there’s nothing you can do. And then in moments, both sober and not, you’re trying to work out the best scheme to get them back. That’s the journey you see through the film – it’s Pádraic’s powerlessness as he tries to work out: ‘Is there a way back?’ Colm withdraws severely, and it’s quite brutal, but it’s done with some tenderness.”
Though “Banshees” isn’t overtly political, it’s set near the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, with a battle seen in the distance at one point. McDonagh has generally downplayed the connection, but he told The Atlantic: “All you need to know, really, is that [the civil war] was over a hairline difference of beliefs which had been shared up until the year before. And it led to horrific violence. The main story is that, too: negligible differences that end up, well, spoiler alert, not in a good place.”
So how much of the film is an allegory for Ireland’s many decades of internal conflict that pit longtime friends against each other?
“Martin always likes things to be ambiguous to a degree. It’s for people to work out in their own way,” Broadbent says. “We never visit [the Irish Civil War, or] the differences between the two parties there. It’s really for Martin to say. There are definite echoes of the Civil War, but it’s a human text that can happen anywhere.”
McDonagh has also said that Pádraic, who’s kind, and Colm, who’s ruthless in pursuit of his art, correspond to two sides of his personality. “He plays into the difference between [a devotion to] art and being nice, which is a power struggle for certain people,” Broadbent says. “How much time should we spend creating and isolate ourselves at any expense, versus how important is it to be nice to people?”
Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) may offer the ultimate commentary on their feud. “She says, ‘You’re all feckin’ boring.’ It may be that the [real] power is with her, to say: ‘Keep fighting, I’m moving on somewhere else. I’ve got a different life plan,’” Broadbent adds. “And then there’s a very sad power imbalance between Dominic (Barry Keoghan) and his abusive father. That’s the epitome of powerlessness.”
Few war stories are as devastating as Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Edward Berger’s new German film adaptation begins with a schoolmaster trying to convince students that fighting in World War I is the patriotic thing to do, telling them that “modern warfare is like a game of chess. It’s never about the individual. It’s always about the whole.”
Producer Malte Grunert says Berger didn’t take these lines from the novel, instead basing them on real speeches from that time. “[‘Front’] is about young men who are true believers of right-wing nationalist propaganda, lies and hate speech, who go to war thinking it’s an adventure,” Grunert adds. “It’s a reminder of what can happen if resistance or anti-authoritarianism is not strong enough. If you were looking for a contemporary parallel, it’s possibly young Russian conscripts who believe the propaganda they hear at home and are being sent to the Ukraine with used uniforms [as soldiers are in our film]. I’m reading articles that say that is actually happening.”
Grunert sees several other parallels to “Front” in today’s headlines. “There are very strong right-wing parties in a lot of European parliaments – in Germany, in France. The Italian government [has] neofascists, the Hungarian government is totalitarian, and this is a hundred years after World War I ended and Europe was flipping into World War II. After the longest period of peace in Europe in centuries, it seems we tend to forget our history and how easy it is to fall back into a political narrative of nationalistic propaganda. This kind of language has entered the political discourse again over the last 15 years, and I am deeply worried about it. I think it’s almost our civic duty to resist those political parties.”
What sets “Front” apart from most traditional American and British war and anti-war films, Grunert says, “is that the German perspective on war, especially the two world wars of the last century, is one where there is no space for heroism, and the death of an enemy is never a good thing. The German perspective, obviously based on [our] history, can only be one of guilt, shame, regret and responsibility.”
Writer-director Ruben Östlund satirizes capitalism, the ultra-rich and male-female power dynamics in “Triangle of Sadness” by flipping each on its head. In this dark comedy from producers Erik Hemmendorff and Philippe Bober, a female influencer (Charlbi Dean) and the male model boyfriend she out-earns (Harris Dickinson) take a luxury cruise in which in a twist of fate turns the ruling class into servants.
“We need to believe that authorities are people we can trust, or that there’s some non-corrupt structure to our society,” Östlund says. “Satire is very often dealing with hierarchies, power, economic influences. So I understand why people can get very provoked by [the film].”
Yet it’s all very familiar to Östlund. “My mother became a communist, and my brother became right-wing. So I was constantly hearing political debate in my home where Lenin and Marx were mentioned. It was a bit like looking at the world from a very Eastern and Western perspective.”
Even the film’s fight between the influencer and her boyfriend over who’ll pay a dinner check comes from an argument Östlund had with his now-wife early in their relationship. “In all of my movies, I’ve tried to find situations from my own life, or something I have heard about, where I feel we fail at being human beings, like [the need to be] in control, or live up to ideas about who we should be.”
One might think that a movie about the U.S. Navy popular with right-leaning audiences wouldn’t be anti-authoritarian. But Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” — produced by Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, David Ellison and Jerry Bruckheimer — kicks off with its title character [Cruise] disobeying orders to help save his “Darkstar” scramjet program, which an officer [Ed Harris] wants
“He’s still Maverick and he’s still a rebel, and wants to stick it to Ed Harris, and he wants to take that Darkstar plane up and save everyone’s jobs because he knows that they’re going to be shut down unless he can go to Mach 10,” editor Eddie Hamilton told Variety.
So why are all these anti-authoritarian films examining power struggles rising to the top now?
“Everything” producer Wang has an idea. “We’ve come out of a Trump presidency that led to an insurrection, and then we came out of COVID, which felt like this strong-handed government move to keep everyone locked down,” he says. “We’re all skeptical, feeling like we are being manipulated by algorithms, [so much] that we don’t even know what we want or what our tastes are, because we are so particularly advertised to that our own attention and ideas are monetized. We’ve all felt these power structures so clearly, and also wanted these power structures to keep us safe. That’s a contradiction that’s hard to reconcile.”