This year’s Oscar nominations were announced today, including the Academy’s eight picks for best picture. Though they tackled a wide range of themes, many of these films offered critical lessons about leadership along the way.
Here’s a look at three of the films nominated this year, and the powerful takeaways they provide for leaders in any field.
1. Genius is perspiration
In many ways Whiplash – the Damien Chazelle-directed indie about the brutal, borderline sadomasochistic relationship between a 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his exacting music professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) – takes the standard Hollywood depiction of genius and flips it on its head.
Frequently, genius is portrayed on the silver screen as the byproduct of raw talent, a force that expresses itself in soaring flashes. Think of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, in which Mozart’s musical brilliance is depicted as effortless, a natural result of his incomparable mind. Or to use a more contemporary example, David Fincher’s The Social Network, in which Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) essentially conjures up the idea for Facebook in a fervid bout of inspiration.
In Whiplash, genius doesn’t come so easily. While ability is a prerequisite, the film presents a world view where exceptional achievement is impossible without grueling effort. Andrew wants to be “one of the greats,” and in order to earn the distinction, he submits to Fletcher’s punishing regime, practicing until his fingers literally bleed so he can master the precision that comes from hitting the right note over, and over and over again.
While the movie focuses on the twisted psychological dynamic between a teacher and his student, it also serves as a spotlight for the vast amount of time, work, effort and unsexy repetition that lies at the core of some of the most impressive displays of human achievement.
2. Achievement is persistence
The Imitation Game – which recounts how Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with a team of mathematicians and cryptographers, broke the Nazi’s Enigma code and helped win the war for the Allies – is also an exploration of genius.
Like Whiplash, the movie pays homage to the long hours and grueling effort great achievement often requires, swapping drum practices for the sleepless nights Turing and his team dedicated to building the precursor to the modern computer.
Over the course of the film, Turing’s vision of creating a machine capable of cracking the Nazi Enigma code is attacked from all sides. His supervisors in military intelligence don’t understand his work, and so they try to destroy it. On multiple occasions, members of his own team are plagued by doubt and question his strategy.
As the surrounding disbelief mounts, Turing’s commitment to his singular vision never wavers. Not once does he question the validity of his idea, nor does he stop fighting to see it actualized.
Such tunnel vision frequently places Turing – who is already awkward and hopelessly inept at reading social cues – in an unpopular and lonely position. But his unshakable persistence ultimately births not just one of the greatest technological breakthroughs of the 20th century, but a machine that would help end World War II and thus save millions of lives.
3. Restraint is power
Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma narrows in on three months in the life of the civil rights hero, beginning with his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964 and ending in Montgomery slightly more than three months later.
While the movie tackles familiar historical events, its tension stems from the back-room negotiations between public figures and politicians, notably King (David Oyelowo) and Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). In many ways, Selma is a movie about strategy.
In one of the movie’s climactic scenes, King leads a group of civil rights marchers to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where armed white police officers await on the other side. Instead of urging the crowd forward, King takes a minute to pray, then holds back and ultimately retreats, a calculated move not of defeat but of bold, long-term strategy – one that many of King’s fellow activists disagreed with. It’s one of the many moments in the film that highlights how skillful negotiation and trusting your instincts – knowing when to charge forward and when to hold back – can lead to meaningful action, in this case Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.