If the films competing for Oscar recognition are meant to serve as a reflection of the times, it seems war is one everyone’s mind. This year’s race features two cinematic odes to wartime life with Sam Mendes’ impressively shot 1917 and Taika Waititi’s anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit racking up trophies on their way to the final battleground: the 92nd Academy Awards.
They couldn’t be more different of course. One film opens with a spirited montage of Nazi demonstrations at the height of Hitler’s popularity set to the German cover of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the other is a nearly-three-hour romp through the ruinous French countryside where two young heroes confront enemy soldiers, bunker rat traps, and the futility of their role in the Great War. But war is war, and movies about war have historically done well with Oscar voters, so it’s not a stretch to imagine Mendes and Waititi’s biggest competition come awards’ night might be each other, especially if the recent displays of nativism among Academy members prove popular.
And if we’re going to reward one of these films we have to decide what kind of storytelling — even if it’s a story that takes place in a by-gone era and centers on conflicts that now occupy space in our history books — feels like the right kind of mirror for the world as it is now. Here’s why Jojo should win.
Yes, the film has emerged as one of this year’s more polarizing movies. (It’s no Joker, but it’s enjoyed a respectable share of controversy.) It’s the cinematic version of cilantro or running, or vegemite. You either love the film, or you hate it. You either enjoy Waititi’s darkly comedic rebuke of fascism or find his irreverent impersonation of a mass genocidal maniac off-putting. There’s not much in-between.
But it’s that divisiveness, that uncomfortable knee-jerk reaction to the film’s premise that elevates it to something more than just a watered-down war epic.
In Jojo Rabbit, Waititi confronts enduring prejudice and destructive propaganda through a trademarked brand of quirky humor and heartfelt nuance that redirects the lens to social justice issues we’re still grappling with today. We meet Jojo (an impossibly charming Roman Griffin Davis) as he’s readying to depart for Nazi Summer Camp. He’s on the precipice of adulthood, he’s been indoctrinated into the Reich’s vile belief system, and his imaginary friend is a pudgy Adolf Hitler (Waititi) sporting a choad-ish mustache and a buffoonish personality. Despite all this, Jojo has an air of innocence. The Nazis are just a club he wants to belong to, Hitler is a heroic figure that adorns boyish posters on his wall, the teachings he recites are embedded in his impressionable psyche by authority figures he refuses to question.
And for the first half of the film, we have a warped sense of fun while secretly cringing when Waititi yells “Heil me, man!” and riotously laughing as Rebel Wilson hypes up the benefits of being a “Germ.” Waititi spends a good part of the film positioning his Nazis as bumbling idiots, not to diminish the atrocities they commit, but to highlight the nonsensical nature of prejudice. When Jojo and his good pal Yorki (Archie Yates, a child we’ll die for should it come to that) muse on the distinctive characteristics of Jews – they have horns, they control minds, they smell of Brussel sprouts – we’re reminded, through comedy, of how absurd and irrational targeted hatred towards certain groups of people can be. They’re so ridiculous, only a naïve 10-year-old boy could take them seriously.
And when the film takes a tonal shift in its second act, when these oafish villains begin to present an imminent threat to the people Jojo loves — his mother, his friends, the young Jewish girl hiding in his attic named Elsa (Thomasin McKenize) — that change feels all the more jarring. When we see children being used as human grenades, when SS officers invade Jojo’s home, when his mother is hanged in the town square, and when Elsa recalls how she escaped the death march, we’re shocked back to the reality of how dangerous, how deadly these prejudices can be.
We laugh when Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf scolds his partner (and lover?) Finkel (Alfie Allen) for confusing German shepherds with their canine equivalent, just like we might laugh at the ignorance and idiocy of white nationalists carrying tiki torches they bought at Wal-Mart during a night-time rally. But when violence, and war, and death follow, we’re forced to reckon with our own naivety in believing fascism, racism, sexism, and the like are just a joke, ideals held by small-minded people who pose no real threat.
That feels like a significantly more interesting and timelier message than the one Mendes posits. In fact, despite its enthralling visual style and its exhilarating action sequences, 1917 reads like a traditional war movie, one that prioritizes hollow acts of heroism over any real, meaningful commentary. There are brief moments of introspection, a whisper of anti-war sentiment that grows louder as each commanding officer callously orders the film’s young, pliable heroes to traverse enemy territory and risk their lives for the greater good, whatever that is. But Mendes seems more interested in delivering spectacle, placing audiences in the action like some cinematic Overwatch experiment than investigating the fueling factors of war and the consequences of blind patriotism.
Jojo Rabbit probably won’t beat out 1917 come Oscar night. The Academy isn’t known for its sense of humor, and it’s hard to imagine older voters identifying with Waititi’s darkly comedic satirical style, but his is the better war movie because it focuses on a fight that we’re all engaged in, on a battlefield that feels frighteningly closer to home.