Some terrific recent Oscar-nominated movies, such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote, came as close to nonfiction in their techniques and textures as movie drama could bear.
This year reverses the trend with vivid splashes of artifice and theatricality. Movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire, and even Milk and Frost/Nixon, though rooted in reality, have won over still-widening audiences with touches of myth and fable and sometimes just plain make-believe.
The lives in Benjamin Button start on Mark Twain's Mississippi River and end with Hurricane Katrina, and merge into an amazing American odyssey. Just as crucial to Slumdog Millionaire as its gamelike structure and its love story is a tale as old as Cain and Abel - or as Warner Bros. classics such as A ngels With Dirty Faces - about two brothers or playmates taking vastly different routes out of the slums. Milk reaches its artistic peak when Harvey Milk's life ends in moments of operatic tragedy. And Frost/Nixon turned the David Frost-Richard Nixon interviews into a bout worthy of David and Goliath.
Still, what gives these films their spine is their utter currency: They are topical as well as timeless.
They make you feel as if the Oscars heard America talking. In giving Button 13 nominations, Slumdog 10, Milk eight and Frost/Nixon and The Reader both five, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences chose to salute best picture nominees that reflect our national conversations about opportunities and responsibilities, big and small. These aren't matters of "subtext"; they are simply text.
The sprawling, poetry-charged Benjamin Button (my favorite) has a stroke of whimsical genius at the center: a man who is born old and ages backward. Yet as it roams over the entire 20th century, including two world wars, it hinges on a woman taking responsibility by caring for this old-young hero. And it turns on Button taking responsibility in a different way by leaving his child with his wife, so his daughter won't see him as a teen, a boy, an infant.
Slumdog Millionaire is set in Mumbai with a cast of Indian characters, yet it may be the most American movie on the list. It's about a tea-server at a cell-phone company who triumphs on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire by drawing on his nerve and honesty and everything he has - including every ounce of his hard-won street knowledge. He does so not just for material gain, but to be with the woman he's loved since both were slum-dwelling orphans.
Milk offers up the life of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk and his work in San Francisco's Castro District as a paradigm of community organizing and how such work benefits democracy. Milk triumphed over the gay establishment in San Francisco because he understood his constituency's concerns from the asphalt up. And he became a leader for the entire city because he demonstrated to union bosses and educators and straights of every variety the power of neighborhoods to revitalize cities.
Frost/Nixon, the dramatization of the interviews between British broadcast personality David Frost and ex-president Richard Nixon, in which Nixon at last acknowledged his own culpability in the Watergate coverup, offers several cautionary tales wrapped into one tight, exciting package. Nixon's character provides a prototype of an American who allows unchecked power to corrupt him - and argues that when the president does something illegal, it's not illegal. The Frost character provides a portrait of a commercial talk-show host and sometime-journalist who accepts the burden of history only when his idealistic colleagues thrust it upon him - and then enters into the sort of open-ended interrogation with a political power that today's reporters rarely have a chance to enjoy.
Even the disjointed and opaque The Reader, the one odd (and to me inexplicable) choice on the list, is based on a profound, lucid novel. The movie starts out as the chronicle of an affair between a female streetcar conductor and a high-school boy in post-World War II Germany, then takes a sudden turnaround to the concentration camps. It might have appealed to academy voters who read into it everything they gleaned from the book or saw it as the ultimate depiction of the kind of limited person who could "just follow orders" even in a concentration camp.