On March 19, 1953, The Greatest Show on Earth won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Back when I wrote about that film, I excoriated it for being terrible and not deserving of the award. I still firmly believe that. It’s definitely the worst movie I’ve reviewed in this blog so far.
The Greatest Show on Earth upset the highly favored High Noon for Best Picture. That was the story of the ceremony, and over the decades, various film critics and scholars still contend that the Academy got it wrong. High Noon simply had a greater cultural impact than a film about the circus. I can sit here and debate it until smoke flies off the end of my pencil, but it wouldn’t make any difference. The Academy, which is made of humans, made their human decision and that’s that.
But being that the Academy voters are just humans, they’ve got their own biases and they’re sensitive to the issues of their day. High Noon was seen by many to be a rebuke of McCarthyism of the 1950s and John Wayne called the movie “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” What that movie represented, as well as the time during which it represented those ideas, was why High Noon didn’t win.
Almost the exact same is true for this week’s Best Picture winner Crash, the 2004 Paul Haggis-directed flick. At the 78th Academy Awards, Crash upset Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture. Many, many critics were stunned that Brokeback Mountain, a film about two gay cowboys, didn’t win. Several critics blamed the Academy for having an anti-gay bias. But this isn’t the same situation as The Greatest Show on Earth, though. It’s not a terrible movie up against a great one. In my opinion, Crash is a terrific movie in its own right. I’ll get to all that below. I’ll need to watch Brokeback Mountain and compare and contrast the two.
But the critics were divided as to their feelings about Crash, which tells an incredibly complex and morally gray story about prejudices and racism. Roger Ebert, one of my favorite critics, lauded Crash as being the best film of 2005. Others called it worst and can’t forgive the Academy for its decision to give Crash the honor. In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter polled many of the Academy members, and in that rehashing, Brokeback Mountain won. Even Paul Haggis didn’t believe that it deserved to win the award.
But where does that leave us today? Hopefully I’ll cover that well enough in the next few thousand words. Just as a note, though, I cannot overstate how incredibly complicated this film is. Crash is an extraordinarily difficult film to write about, or at least to write about correctly. I even told my girlfriend Laci that it may take two weeks to write the review. I couldn’t do that to you. But I have put a lot of thought into this film.
While you’re reading this, just remember that I’m a privileged white dude writing about this in a privileged white person coffee shop. My opinions are just mine. I’ve thought all week of how to be fair and empathetic to each person’s struggle with race and prejudice. I’m putting forth a lot of effort in this Texas coffee shop to hit the nail on the head, but I may still in advertently whack my thumb a time or two.
Now, for the rest of the movie.
Crash features a complex, stacked, and interweaving storyline with a very large case of characters. Don Cheadle plays Graham, a detective with the LAPD who struggles to overcome his troubled past; Sandra Bullock plays Jean, the privileged and overly sensitive wife of the Los Angeles County District Attorney, Rick (Brendan Fraser); Thandie Newton plays Christine, the wife of a television director Cameron (Terrence Howard), Matt Dillon plays an overly racist LAPD cop with an ailing elderly father; Michael Pena (one of my favorites) is Daniel, a locksmith just trying to make ends meet for his family; Ludacris plays Anthony, a young man turned car thief, and; Shaun Toub plays Farhad, an Iranian store owner who loses everything to a hate crime.
From the start, Crash’s story is very complicated, and difficult to summarize. But the basic gist is this: each character, who are strangers, upend each other’s lives and change the course of their stories. Underneath the general story arc, the narrative is driven by free will from each of the characters. Utilizing such a short time to get to know each and every character, Haggis chooses to left the film move along at fast clip, constantly ducking from one scenario to the next. It’s a little bit like episodic television in this respect. But here, it works. My other half was certainly upset with me when I had to turn it off halfway through to go to bed. It sucks you in from the start and doesn’t let you go until the screen cuts to black. 1.
This is a very colloquially-written movie with short, yet very powerful and meaningful dialogue. Like I said above, there’s such little time to get to know each character, that the first few lines said by each person must mean something. And they do. Yeah, it’s short, but you feel so connected to each character more with each passing scene. Haggis really has his thumb on everyday speech, but also that which is meaningful for each person.
One of the most striking elements of this script is that each character almost defaults to saying some terrible and racist thing right off the bat. Normally, if your protagonist or supporting character was a prejudiced person, then that would come out over time as the film progressed. The opposite is also true. But Haggis writes the movie in such a way that it’s almost like the deep subconscious and the thoughts of the brain run the mouth. There is no filter to anything that these characters say. This makes each person very impulsive, running around saying whatever they feel. This demonstrates that each person, and each and every one of us, has our own biases that we can’t help, no matter how hard we try. 1.
Mark Isham composed the score for Crash. In contrast to other films we’ve seen of late, particularly movies like Braveheart, the score for Crash is very unremarkable, made of most long droning sounds that only serve to help set the tone for each scene. This unusual score wasn’t bad, though.
Also featured in Crash was the song “In the Deep” by Bird York. The piece was nominated for Best Original Song at the 78th Academy Awards. The slow number, which was performed during the ceremony, is the perfect cap stone to an emotionally draining movie. I have no complaints about the music in Crash, as basic as it was. 1.
Taking place in Los Angeles, Crash is almost a love song to the City of Angels in its own way. LA, like many cities in the United States, is a very culturally diverse place. But behind all of that is prejudice and racism, capped off by the historically and notoriously racist and corrupt LAPD. Much of the film takes place in the seedier side of LA, but it really covers the whole spectrum of the city, from ghettos to upper class mansions. The set is as diverse as its cast.
The set design is simple and contemporary. Nothing special about it. 1.
James M. Muro was the director of photography for Crash and he wasn’t nominated for any awards.
In general, the cinematography is simple to slightly complex. This is not the most cinematically artistic movie that I’ve seen so far and it’s not hard to see why the cinematography isn’t recognized, but it does have its moments.
However, I will say that Crash does one thing to help further its point: the in-your-face nature within which it presents each character. There are many, many close-ups during the film, capturing each person and their gut-wrenching reaction to the forces around them. That, coupled with some well-time camera movements (the use of a crane in particular) make for an always engaging, but rather flat cinematic experience.
All that being said, this category is saved by the stupendous editing used in the film. I’ve always believed that the process of editing is really the process of selecting. This movie’s editing is particularly terrific because of all the stories that it has to tell. Not only does the editor, Hughes Winborne (who won the Academy Award for this movie) have to get the stories right and have a total understanding of each scenes impact, but he must also perfectly trim down each shot and scene to make the movie as efficient as possible. Gone with the Wind was almost four hours because it had to be: the story itself is long and complicated. To get this film down to less than two hours AND to make it as impactful as it was on me is truly a case study in great editing. 1.
Just as the plot of Crash is hard to define, so too, is the acting. Many, many great performances were turned by the cast of Crash, but none of them rise to the top over one another. So, instead I’ll focus on Matt Dillon, as he was the only actor nominated for an acting Oscar.
Dillon plays Officer Ryan, an overly aggressive a**hole of a cop who pulls over Cameron and Christine early in the film. He power trips during the stop, sexually assaulting Christine and humiliating Cameron at the same time.
But, in another light, Ryan must contend with his ailing father, who he has to take care of on just his single income. Dillon’s portrayal of Ryan is stirring in that we can hate him one minute, sympathize with him the next, and then be angry with him all over again. But Ryan has to overcome himself, prove his worth to others and himself. During one of the movie’s most emotional scenes, Ryan must save Christine just a day after he assaulted her, from a burning car after she flipped her car. In just one short sequence, Ryan must confront his horrible past to save a woman who, after she sees it’s him, doesn’t want to be saved, would much rather die than face the painful memory of his assault just a few hours before. Ryan’s impassioned fight in the name of prejudice, and his struggle to overcome his past sins, really stands apart from others in the film. 1.
Alright, here’s the hard part.
Up to this point in the post, Crash is really a rather unremarkable film on a technical front. It’s the movie’s creative decisions by Paul Haggis, who was nominated for Best Director, that really help it stand apart and send it over the top. I know that. Yet, I still struggle with how I feel about it.
First of all, each character’s “go to” source of conflict is the race of the person next to them. Everything, and I do mean all source of conflict in the film, is about or has something to do with racism and prejudice. Like I said above, the impulsive anarchy that runs amok in Crash is everywhere. But it also seemed very unnatural to me. Yeah sure we all have biases, but the difference lies in what we do about them. We may act consciously or unconsciously in response to them, but most of the time we do not. We don’t go to shopping malls, or doctor’s offices always commenting on how each person there is a different race or ethnicity than us. Some folks do, sure, but most folks don’t. I don’t at least. From this point of view, the film almost shoves racism and prejudice down our throats. I certainly think that you can make more poignant films about overcoming racism and prejudice than Crash. Look at Hidden Figures or Selma as two great examples. But again, I’m just a white dude in a coffee shop full of only white people.
But maybe that’s the point. The force feeding of racism, and how uncomfortable it is to see that on the screen again and again, is supposed to hold up a mirror so we can look back at ourselves. Yes, Crash is over the top in its portrayal of prejudice, but it’s enabling something deep down, at Freudian levels of subconsciousness. It doesn’t represent all of us in this melting pot of a nation, but it does at the same time.
But Crash does more than that. The movie shows us that there is an immense struggling tearing each of out hearts in two: knowing what is right, but doing what is sometimes wrong. Every person has a struggle in his or her eyes and we all handle them differently. Struggle is not skin deep. I’m reminded of a quote from Beneath a Scarlet Sky, the terrific Mark Sullivan book I finished this week: “…by opening our hearts, revealing our scars, we are made human and flawed and whole.”
So, going by that logic, Crash is, on the surface, a tale about being human, and showing our scars and flaws to each other. But deeper, Crash demonstrates how frustratingly little we understand about each other. And a lack of understanding only leads to a lack of empathy for each person. No, we can’t get into other’s heads, and for good reason, too, and that forces each of us to be an island, forming prejudices about those that are not like us in any respect. And that leads to chaos, violence, and anarchy. What is a prejudiced society but an anarchistic one?
When we lose empathy, so, too, do we lose the core of what makes us human. No, we aren’t perfect, and we aren’t the same, and to believe that we should be, or to have any preconceived notions that we should be, or that others should be like us, is unjust and inhumane.
Moreover, Crash demonstrates that prejudice, which is dished out and given by each and every character in the movie, must be paid for. The universe is aggressively indifferent to all your intentions, bad or good. But the act of prejudicing against another human, must be atoned for in some way or another. We all must pay the price of bias.
Given racism’s incredible complicated nature, I’ve had to dig very deep within myself to reach the pit of the big idea of Crash. And that’s the point. Paul Haggis made a movie for the benefit of the audience, not for the benefit of himself. It’s a film that is just as relevant now as it was when it was made. Given the very divided nature of America today, I have to believe that the introspection forced on us from Crash is one that is badly needed. 1.
I’m giving an extra point to directing and plot.
Final Score: 9/10
Crash won the 78th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 5, 2006 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The film beat out Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Munich for Best Picture. The award was presented by a visibly shocked Jack Nicholson and it was accepted by Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman, producers. In total, Crash was the nominated for six Academy Awards and won just three, the first film since Rocky in 1976 to win Best Picture and only two other Oscars.
Other winners that night included Ang Lee becoming the first non-Caucasian winner of Best Director, Philip Seymour Hoffman winning Best Actor for Capote, Reese Witherspoon winning Best Actress for Walk the Line, George Clooney winning Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, and Rachel Weisz winning Best Supporting Actress for The Constant Gardener. The ceremony was hosted by Jon Stewart.
Next week, I’ll take a look at the 2011 Best Picture winner, The Artist. After that, it’s The Sting, Rebecca, The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Chariots of Fire, and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).