Oscars Promise Political Controversy

The 78th Annual Academy Awards may well be the most politicized Oscars ever televised. Many of the nominated films and performances tackle contentious social issues including homosexuality, race relations, and the war on terror. Adding fuel to the fire, Jon Stewart—the anchorman of Comedy Central’s left-leaning satirical newscast “The Daily Show”—has been invited to host.

In recent years, the Academy Awards broadcast has come under fire for being overlong and dull. Last year, the show’s producers trimmed its runtime by a half hour and tapped outspoken comedian Chris Rock to give the program some much needed “edge.” To the delight of viewers—and the horror of many stars—Rock used the hosting gig to skewer Hollywood egos and lampoon the self-importance of the entertainment industry. But his barbs may have been a little too incisive—he was not invited back.

This week, I go tête à tête with former Arts Chair Ben B. Chung ’06 over this year’s controversial slate of nominated films: “Syriana,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crash,” “Munich,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Paradise Now,” among others.

WAR ON TERROR

Bernard: I’m impressed by the number of nominated films that address the war on terror. I’m thinking particularly of “Syriana,” “Munich,” and “Paradise Now.” “Munich” and “Paradise Now” both deal with terrorism in the Israeli context, but it’s impossible to watch them in the present political climate without subconsciously substituting the United States for Israel.

Unfortunately, “Munich” received a chilly reception from the Israeli press, while performing modestly in the States. I wouldn’t count on it clinching any of the major awards for which it is nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Adapted Screenplay. The Academy has snubbed Spielberg before—notably in 1985 for his similarly controversial film “The Color Purple.” I think “Crash” will be rewarded instead; it is an uplifting film about racial reconciliation that is likely to inspire easy consensus.

Ben: It is impossible to dissociate “Munich” with the U.S. thanks to the closing shot of the Twin Towers. I admit that I am completely perplexed as to what happened with “Munich.” Spielberg’s previously Academy-ignored flirtations with controversy also include “Amistad” (I’m still trying to figure out how the “Full Monty” director got nominated above Steven) and, yes, “The Color Purple.” But I optimistically assumed a movie this emotionally and morally engaging—not to mention damn exhilarating—would find itself conveniently at the cross-section between the action and indie sets. Sadly, the inane chatter about controversy managed to drown out those who loudly sang its praises. I agree it will probably leave empty-handed.

FOREIGN FILM

Bernard: Likewise, I doubt “Paradise Now” will win the statuette for Best Foreign Film; I think that its sympathetic portrayal of terrorism is more than the Academy can stomach. My prediction is that “Sophie Scholl” will win in this category. It is about a young German girl’s heroism during the Holocaust, and the Academy has a history of rewarding films of this genre.

Ben: Somehow, I doubt that the Academy is interested in avoiding controversy in this category. They’ve chosen euthanasia-friendly fare two years in a row, with 2004’s “The Sea Inside” and 2003’s “The Barbarian Invasions.” But I think they will turn down “Paradise Now” in favor of South Africa’s “Tsotsi,” which has just enough exotic feel-goodery to make voters feel pleased with themselves.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Ben: Hopefully the same attitude won’t prevail in the Best Documentary category, where the current favorites are those pesky penguins. If all the voters carefully watch the nominees, they will undoubtedly conclude that the byzantine tale of Nile perch and encroaching globalization in “Darwin’s Nightmare”—the best film of