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The Envelope, Please …

On the politics of the Oscars



Before reading any further, please know that none of the conclusions which follow can be blamed on any of our quite illustrious film critics, who actually know what they're talking about.

These are just some largely impressionistic thoughts about the recently concluded Academy Awards ceremony — which seemed to us to be pretty much a case of all-have-won-and-all-must-have prizes. What struck us is the extent to which political considerations, of both the realpolitik and the office-politics kind, influenced the outcome this year, as, in fact, they always do.

We are pleased to sign on to what seems to be almost everybody's theory —as to why the Best Picture award went to Argo, a movie based on the actual rescue of six Americans from Ayatollah Khomeini's minions when their U.S. embassy colleagues were seized and held hostage in 1979. In an uncannily apt metaphor for the power of movies and the role which fantasy plays in real life, Argo demonstrates how a make-believe film project proved to be the proper vehicle for smuggling the Americans out of Iran to safety. The movie may be somewhat more truthy than totally true, but it seems close enough to the heart of the event to have been a legitimate contender for the big prize. That's one political reality. Another is that the film's popularity probably owed something to the nation's current tense relations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

And yet another is that Argo probably was destined to go over the top when the no doubt very deserving Ben Affleck, the film's director, was unaccountably snubbed by the Academy's nominating committee. Many of the votes that allowed Argo to out-distance the competition were probably meant as compensation for what was perceived as an injustice.

One of Argo's rivals was Zero Dark Thirty, directed by the quite estimable Kathryn Bigelow, whose gritty film The Hurt Locker, based on the activities of a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq, won an Oscar in 2008. Zero Dark Thirty, about the 10-year pursuit and ultimate killing of Osama bin Laden, may have been even grittier and more dramatic. But it probably lost some of its original following due to accusations that Bigelow had overplayed the role of torture ("enhanced interrogation") in the pursuit of al Qaeda's leader. And that seems to have been both politically and factually incorrect. Like Affleck, Bigelow failed to get a Best Director nomination, and the movie itself was deprived of any major awards. Lincoln, too, largely struck out, but there was no denying the power and the authenticity of Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of our greatest president. It struck home both politically and artistically.

As for the Academy Awards competition, if we have any major complaint, it has to do with the movie industry's marketing practices, which result in too many premium movies being released at the end of a calendar year, during the holiday season, a fact that probably minimizes the public's role in vetting the contenders. But in the end, we are all fans of this particular mirror held up to life, are we not? Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction. In the right hands, they are one and the same thing.

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