But Sarah Vowell, a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life and author of Assassination Vacation, a nonfiction best-seller about America's political murders, takes a different tack. She says this year's crop taps into a more timeless desire: "the very real, underreported American yearning for historical knowledge, as long as facts about the past are presented with a little humor and emotion and panache."
The success of the biographical romance Walk the Line, a salute to country-music great Johnny Cash that takes a non-moralistic look at drug addiction and adultery, may be as significant as that of any social or political drama. It suggests that the growing appetite for iconoclastic pictures may have more to do with the maturing of the American movie audience than it does with social disgruntlement.
In the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers' appetite for pop fueled a generation of filmmakers who reinvented space operas, scare movies and shoot-'em-ups. But the surfeit of that stuff has stimulated a latent appetite for reality. Many of this year's nominated features ruminate on the icons and actions of the boomers' past: Capote, Murrow, Munich, Cash.
"You do get a sense of the maturing of the audience," says Gibney. "You reach a point where most features feel formulaic, and you can watch 20 minutes and know exactly where the film is going to go. You may still slavishly watch, because it predictably `delivers,' but you feel like Pavlov's dogs - you know when the bell is going to ring and when you're going to salivate."
"I think that's right about boomers getting sick of Hollywood pop," says 36-year-old Marshall Curry, director of Street Fight, a best documentary nominee about the viciousness and complexity of two African-Americans going head-to-head in a mayoral contest in Newark, N.J. "But I also think that Generation X and younger have different attitudes about docs than the boomers."
Unlike "boomers raised on stiff, storyless docs [the tweed suit in front of a book case]," Curry always took the entertainment value of nonfiction as a given. "It's sort of like music: I think that young people today have a lot fewer rules about their music - the charts have rock and hip-hop and pop - they just want something that sounds `good.' Maybe the same is true for film. If it has strong characters and a good conflict/story arc, they'll watch it," he says.
Demme considers "reality television" to be "hideous" and "part of the downward spiral of desensitization that is consuming our culture." But Curry says younger viewers weaned on TV's manipulated fact-based programming are open to stronger stuff.
"Docs have become more mainstream in part because `reality' television, which I generally hate, has taught people that reality can be interesting and dramatic." Curry adds, "Cheap, good equipment has created new opportunities for people who couldn't otherwise have made documentaries."
Documentaries such as Demme's The Agronomist boast scenes as intricate as the plushest studio production. Demme's depiction of Haitian religious rites mixes footage of pilgrims bathing, gyrating and praying at a waterfall near a spot where the Virgin Mary's image was once seen, with a radio broadcaster's incantatory talk and Wyclef Jean's music. Demme says he shapes his documentaries "for `the movie audience,' not the classroom. If you do your job right, your film will wind up in the classroom after all."
Gibney feels the same way about using music and imagery and metaphor to move an audience. He shows a skydiver in free fall as Enron's Ken Lay heads toward fiscal and legal collapse. Songs like "God Bless the Child" and "That Old Black Magic," and dead-on visual symbols like piled-up money bags complete with dollar signs bring Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room the ironic realism of The Threepenny Opera.
Until this year, dramatic feature producers have been latecomers to the reality party. Even comedy directors were ahead of the curve. Christopher Guest made some of America's best contemporary comedies as improvised mock documentaries, most recently in Best of Show and A Mighty Wind.
To Gibney, what's most exciting is that "a movie like Street Fight is an authored piece, with a voice. Even when filmmakers don't put themselves in front of the camera as often as Michael Moore, they're bringing richer and more personal tones and styles to their examination of factual subjects."
He theorizes that the "New Documentary" may have caught up with "the New Journalism" of the '60s and '70s and Capote's nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.