Getting real at the Oscars

Fact-based pictures up for major nominations show shift in Hollywood from fiction to reality

March 05, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Jon Stewart, the master caster of "fake news," will deal with more reality per minute hosting the Oscar show tonight than he does anchoring any episode of The Daily Show.

A slew of topical and fact-based pictures have largely erased the boundaries between documentary and feature nominees.

One Oscar contender recounts the true story of a writer sucking the available humanity from the friends of a murdered family and from their drifter-killers on his way to achieving a literary milestone: a "nonfiction novel."

Another depicts California enduring rolling blackouts and skyrocketing costs while electricity traders manipulate the energy market, reap windfall profits and swap lines like, "Let 'em use [bleeping] candles."

The first is best picture nominee Capote. The second is best documentary nominee Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. They represent peaks of movie forms that have grown ever-closer together.

Fueled by forces as different as political unrest, the onslaught of reality TV and a generation growing exhausted with pop culture, the documentary boom has done more than broaden the marketplace for other documentaries. It's helped catalyze reality-inspired pictures on controversial themes like terrorism (Munich), racism (Crash), Western exploitation of Africa (The Constant Gardener), sexual harassment (North Country) and the limits of free speech in corporate America (Good Night, and Good Luck). And producers promote them as aggressively as escapist franchises.

The energizing effect of documentaries can be seen even in escapist franchises. As Enron's director, Alex Gibney, puts it, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is so hypnotically detailed, so real in its unreality, "It's as if he were making a documentary about Middle Earth."

"It's more than a boom: It's a sea change," says Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's theatrical unit, responsible for last year's Oscar documentary Born into Brothels, and this year's nominee Murderball, about the hair-raising sport of quadriplegic rugby.

Filmmakers had to negotiate hard to launch last year's reality-based features. Michael Nozik, producer of Syriana, based on original reporting about the Middle East and the CIA, says, "It got made only because George Clooney was a powerhouse and got Matt Damon to come in, too."

However, Syriana's ability to draw audiences and foment discussion "has made it easier for other films like it to get in the door. And now we've landed in a time when calling something `real' gives it greater traction."

It's no stretch to see reality as Hollywood's talking point for years to come.

This year, Michael Moore will re-enter the market with Sicko, his expose of the health care system. An Inconvenient Truth puts Al Gore's quest to warn the planet about global warming into documentary form. Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy and the docudrama Bloody Sunday, has made a 9/11 feature, Flight 93. Oliver Stone, a pioneer at mixing fact and speculation, has directed World Trade Center, the story of Port Authority police officers caught in the collapse.

Lasse Hallstrom, most famous for directing The Cider House Rules, created The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as writer Clifford Irving, who attempted to sell a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Steven Soderbergh has been finishing up his Che Guevara film, Guerrilla.

There's even another Capote movie, Have You Heard.

ThinkFilm's Urman compares America's tidal wave of reality-inspired pictures to "France in the 1880s, when you not only had a rage for the naturalistic novels of Emile Zola, but also for wax museums, and for visiting morgues as a form of entertainment! People feel they're on the edge of a volcano and it might blow up.

"Responding to movies that dramatize issues or themes or phenomena that challenge or even frighten us makes us feel we're alive and not just flushing everything away."

"We owe it all to Michael Moore," says Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning moviemaker (The Silence of the Lambs) who for decades has roamed among documentaries (Cousin Bobby), dramatic features (Something Wild), fact-based features (Melvin and Howard) and concert films (Neil Young: Heart of Gold, premiering Friday at the Senator).

"Bowling for Columbine [2002] opened the floodgates by opening American moviegoers' heads to the realization that documentaries can provide a riveting, worthy, `entertaining' experience at the multiplex."

Demme says widespread fury at official misinformation paved the way for a new breed of documentaries. "Maybe we as a people are instinctively turning to documentaries in the hope of actually learning something about vital issues of the day."

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