Ethics, morality dominate socially conscious Oscars

Oscar has developed a social conscience this year, with weighty real-life themes, ranging from ethics in big business and media to racial tensions, dominating the movies vying for the big prizes.

United States inner city tensions, terror in the Middle East, freedom of expression and the thorny subject of tolerance of gays complete the quiver of unusually serious issues inspired by world events that faces Oscar voters this year.

“It’s unusual to have this number of serious films in a single Oscars crop,” Marty Grove, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter online edition, told Agence France-Presse.

“A few years ago the serious film would have been the odd man out, but there is more respect being paid to them by awards givers and more acceptance for weighty films, both fiction and documentary, by audiences,” he said.

All five of the best picture and best director nominees this year deal with issues that Hollywood once thought too serious and too dark for mainstream movie-goers, as do nominees in several of the other major categories.

Capote, about the writing of author Truman Capote’s seminal novel In Cold Blood, takes a hard look at journalistic ethics, while George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck is the still-relevant story of a newsman’s stand against US senator Joseph McCarthy’s repressive 1950s communist witch-hunt.

Paul Haggis’s drama Crash, which goes into the March 5 Oscars show armed with six nominations including best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best supporting actor for Matt Dillon, tells the story of four people from different racial backgrounds who are forced to confront their prejudices when their lives unexpectedly collide in a single incident.

Movie legend Steven Spielberg’s Munich tells the story of Israel’s tough response to the murder of its athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, while Brokeback Mountain, which leads the Oscar race with eight nods, is the aching story of two farm hands who fall in love in the conservative American West.

And the serious themes pervade more than just the best picture and best director categories.

Fernando Meirelles’s thriller The Constant Gardener, nominated for four Oscars including best supporting actress for Rachael Weisz and best adapted screenplay, tells of the ruthless tactics of a multinational pharmaceutical company in Africa.

The drama Syriana studies the shadowy machinations of US oil firms in the Middle East, and bagged two nominations, including one for Clooney as best supporting actor.

“All of these films reflect the concerns that the filmmakers have for our society,” Grove said.

“In the post 9/11 world there are concerns with issues that we face, including morality of the media and of politicians or of global corporations. All of this is grist for the filmmakers’ mill.”

The US-led war in Iraq, a string of high-profile corporate fraud cases including fallen energy giant Enron, US media failures to act as an effective watchdog of government and to check sources have exercised the minds of movie-goers, said popular culture expert Leo Braudy.

“It’s hard to be alive these days without being assailed by these issues, many of which have been very persuasive,” said the University of Southern California professor and author.

“I tend to see it as the dark side of James Bond, escapist movies in which the hero ... triumphs against the single megalomaniac.

“Now you have a much more globalised world as we see in Syriania, when there is an interplay of multiple perspectives of global issues.
The James Bond model is too easy now. Life isn’t that simple any more,” Braudy said.

Both Braudy and Grove however pointed out that while the issues in the movies appear very current, the films themselves were mostly conceived years ago, as movie production is slow business.

But while the Oscars have this year eschewed classic picturesque epics—with the exception of Memoirs of a Geisha, which won six nods, although none in the major categories—they have not forsaken entertainment value.

The nominated filmmakers may be tackling weighty issues, but they are not engaging in stodgy ideological diatribes.

“It makes sense that in times such as these we should have films about serious concerns, but this year these films are still very entertaining and that’s a real achievement,” Grove said. - Sapa-AFP

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