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AT THE MOVIES: The New America: Fighting Our Way Back from the Brink: Stumbling Towards Oscar – Part I

In looking at the films that have the strongest awards potential at this point (with most of the big ones left to be seen, Munich, Geisha, etc.) an interesting theme is emerging. It may mark the first time in a good, long while that the field is dominated by real life, historical figures. And it is in them that we see what our country once was – perhaps because we long to find our way back to something substantial again. These films reflect the mistakes we made and how or if we’ve recovered.

This is not to say that Bush America isn’t a barrel of laughs, just that it’s a country many of us don’t recognize – one in the grips of the possibility of intelligent design being taught in our schools, one where news is dominated by whether or not Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey are getting a divorce – meanwhile, war continues to rage in Iraq, with no end in sight. Our daily reality is one of fear whether real or invented by the news outlets – when will the terrorists hit us next? The times, they certainly have a-changed since the fun-loving ‘90s, before Clinton sprayed on Monica’s Gap dress. Before 9/11. Before Hurricane Katrina.

If the Oscars are a time capsule defining our collective consciousness, we have to wonder, what is going on in our world now? Most of the liberal-leaning artistic community have no outlet for their rage at the current administration and no control over it. If something can’t push out the front, it finds another way out. These films are showing us our past and that will speak volumes about the shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture we live in today. Several films and performances are emerging that represent history – and if it bears out when nominations are announced, it will be an unprecedented sampling of reality at the Oscars.

These are Cinderella Man, in which James J. Braddock came back against all odds to conquer not just his opponents but the Depression. Good Night, and Good Luck gives us a hero of another era – Edward R. Murrow who fostered the integrity of journalism and freedom. Walk the Line with the troubled, difficult but nonetheless heroic Johnny Cash – a cultural icon reminiscent of another era. If these films make it to the home stretch, and it’s questionable whether any of them will (Walk the Line, Nov. 18 is the only lock at this point), we’ll be forced to deal with “issues.” Will our choking frivolity allow it? Can we count on the Oscars to bring some substance back into our lives?

The best of films, though, show the darker side of greatness. In Capote, we remember a man who came to mean so much to us. His Breakfast at Tiffany’s single-handedly birthed an entire generation of females, and continues to do so to this day. We saw our world turned upside down by Capote’s non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood, which did, in fact, change the way people write. But we saw a vain, narcissistic, scared little man who was far from perfect (even if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is). No, these roles represented in the best of Hollywood’s offerings don’t present a perfect world in retrospect, but at least look back honestly.

These films are often ghettoized as “biopics,” and perhaps they are at that. Perhaps it really is just a matter of “Jamie Foxx did so well in Ray maybe it’s time to do Johnny Cash.” But there is something simmering beneath the surface of these historical subjects. They are all representative of a broader political and cultural theme.

At a time when sexual harassment and feminism have been all but forgotten, there is North Country to remind us of what once was and could be again. And, of course, the movie no one has seen, Spielberg’s Great White Hope, Munich (Dec. 23) is about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a conflict that is our reality, whether we acknowledge it or bury our heads in the sand because of it. It is our past, our present, and our future.

Terrence Malick’s upcoming The New World (Dec. 25) is a dramatic telling of John Smith and Pocahontas, and Syriana (Nov. 23) dives right into the global oil industry and ought to expose some truths about the hypocrisy many of us feel with regard to our need for, our consumption of oil and our exploitation of other countries to get it. If Syriana performs critically, it could hit like Traffic last year, garnering Oscars for writing, directing and acting.

Even the fictional stories are dealing with real-life issues that, again, define our experience as Americans or global citizens – The Constant Gardener and Crash are heavy politically and call to the table our ignorance and prejudice. And Brokeback Mountain (Dec. 9) attempts to bring the topic of homosexuality out in the open – it’s a Big Oscar Movie, all dressed up and ready for the awards circuit – with great reviews, epic sweep, a love story. But the twist? It’s two guys. Not only is it two guys but it’s two cowboys. What a daring move for director Ang Lee – and what a daring move it will be for the Academy to embrace it. Are they ready for it? Or will they back away politely as many are expecting?

But then again, in times of strife, the Academy have been known to dwell in escapism. So far, the year doesn’t appear to be shaping up like that, especially with Munich as the main course. Films like The Producers (Dec. 21) could offer a respite from the very sad and hard-going other subjects – and because of that, stand out. King Kong (Dec. 14) can only make the cut if it extraordinary – and with Peter Jackson directing that’s a distinct possibility. You can’t get more escapist than that. And it will probably make more money than all of the films mentioned here put together.All in all, it’s shaping up to be the first season in a long time in which politics and cultural conflicts will play a key role in the Oscars, where our history is as important as our present day reality, where real-life figures have become more dramatic and interesting than made up ones.

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