American Sniper, Selma, The Imitation Game... What's with all the controversy over this year's historical films?
When it comes to covering the movie business, there's almost nothing as boring as a boring set of Oscar nominees. Unfortunately, that's precisely what Hollywood - and those of us tasked with covering Hollywood - is staring down the barrel of in the coming months. Le sigh. In a year in film where Walt Disney scored an international box-office smash with a pitch-dark revisionist fairy tale about rape-survival, Marvel Studios knocked down the wall between space-opera and superheroes, Bong Joon-Ho staged mankind's final post-apocalyptic class-war inside a train, Scarlett Johansson wore the skin of an alien honey-trap, David Fincher dropped his nastiest mind-bender since Fight Club and a bunch of toys proved that even a commercial can be a work of art, the year's contest for Best Picture will be "fought" between a field of the most predictable, lightweight contenders in years.
There are, to be sure, two genuinely great films among the set: Wes Anderson's beautiful The Grand Budapest Hotel and Ava DuVarney's transcendant historical drama Selma; but even they fit common profiles of Oscar readiness (i.e. a Civil Rights drama and "Directed by Wes Anderson.") Otherwise, there are no less than three rote, unchallenging Great Man biopics (American Sniper, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), a pair of pseudo-indies boasting technical gimmicks (Boyhood and Birdman) and the Actor's Showcase everyone is surprised but unconcerned snuck in (Whiplash). Of the lot, Birdman is the closest to "unusual" with its waking-dream visual digressions and grumpy-superhero Jiminy Cricket narration, but once you skim past the surface it becomes less hard to believe that AMPAS' voters would warm to the story of an aging former movie-star wracked by ennui over not being as famous or rich as he was once before.
As ever, in the absence of anything particularly interesting to chew over in the film's themselves, since even the good ones are "good" in about the way they're expected to be, external controversy has filled the "stuff to talk about" vacuum, with this year's flavor being Historical Accuracy... more specifically, whether it matters.
If you're not up on the various issues: American Sniper's hero, the late Chris Kyle, may not have been the nicest of guys. Imitation Game ignores the real tragedy of Alan Turing's life (but then has the audacity to cynically re-brand itself as a gay-rights statement for the Awards' Season. Selma may be treating the Civil Rights legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson unfairly for dramatic purposes. For whatever reason, there doesn't appear to be any controversy brewing around Theory of Everything other than whether or not star Eddie Redmayne's Best Actor chances will be negatively impacted by his more recent turn as a mincing, over-the-top campy supervillain in the bound-to-be-divisive Jupiter Ascending.
Of the three, the blowup over Imitation Game feels the most (depressingly) inevitable: Making a movie about Alan Turing's great accomplishment (crippling the Nazi war codes and laying the foundations of modern computer-science while doing so) while glossing completely over the tragedy that gives it all-important context (the British government paid him back by bullying him into suicide for the "crime" of being gay) is to be expected of middlebrow Awards Bait pablum. In that respect, the brazenly dishonest post-nomination ad campaign (billboards mostly in Los Angeles actually read: "Honor the man - Honor the film.") is noteworthy for what it says about Hollywood politicking: An industry "progressive" enough to be swayed by the chance to pat themselves on the back for awarding a "gay film" but cravenly-corporatist enough to not actually make one for fear of low box-office out in the windswept plains of Michael Bay's America.