Oscars 2015: Hollywood strays from safe zone with 'Selma,' 'Sniper'

Topical films like #Selma, #AmericanSniper are reminders of a time when Hollywood embraced current events

The films speak to two of the most charged eras in American history. They've touched off debates that feel fiercely current despite their period settings. And each boasts a cultural giant behind the camera.

As Oscar voters have picked up or logged on to their ballots these past several weeks, the Clint Eastwood-directed "American Sniper" and the Oprah Winfrey-produced "Selma" have provided  a chance not only to vote for a film but to express political preferences.

When the big show gets underway Sunday, the Oscars' pundit class will focus on best picture and its showdown between "Boyhood" and "Birdman." But there's another, perhaps more meaningful pair of alliteration-friendly contenders, and they bring a kind of meta-conversation to this year's proceedings.

"Selma" and "Sniper," which premiered on the same November day at Los Angeles' AFI Fest and had their debates move in a strange opinion-page lockstep, cast light on race and Iraq, on the unhealed scars of racial segregation and military intervention in the Middle East — and even, in a way, on the role of cinema itself.

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By channeling American anxieties, each film has generated the kind of passionate discussions that don't happen so much in the political realm these days. At least for a certain kind of voter, they make the Oscar ballot look a little more like a voting booth.

The Oscar shortlist does, occasionally, offer a choice with larger implications, a movie that crosses from entertainment to Rorschach test. In 2013, "Zero Dark Thirty" turned into a quasi-referendum on the U.S. government's intelligence-gathering policies after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) and other lawmakers railed against its perceived endorsement of torture.

But this year's best picture ballot is atypically topical, transcending the usual inside-Hollywood questions about quality and personality. "Selma" and "Sniper" are throwbacks, reminders of a time decades ago when Hollywood entertainment regularly engaged with current events — even as the movies also interact with the news cycle in a way that is decidedly 21st century.

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Neither "Selma" nor "Sniper" is favored to win a major award. And voters choose movies for a wide range of reasons, some purely on craft, some for superficial reasons. But a mark for "Selma" can nonetheless be interpreted as an act of internal protest against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--which remains largely white and male and caused a stir when it failed to nominate "Selma's" African American director or star.

A show of support for "Sniper," meanwhile, could send a message that the voter embraces Eastwood's view of the Iraq conflict, though whether that view is unmitigatedly pro-war or something more ambiguous is itself up for debate. The movies demonstrate the consequences, good and ill, of when Hollywood deviates from its modern tendency to play it safe and ventures near political third rails.

"I think there was a thoughtfulness to what Clint did that led us to examine something in a deeper way than we often do. I can't remember the conversation about Iraq being had in this way, and it certainly needs to be had," said Jason Hall, the screenwriter of "American Sniper." "But the fervor and the volume has also been surprising to me. At a certain point I started to get upset because I felt the argument was drowning out the voices of the soldiers that were the whole reason for the movie."

Oscar films once trafficked in these kinds of themes regularly. "Dr. Strangelove" (four nominations, including best picture) and "The Manchurian Candidate" (two nominations) slyly and entertainingly put the Cold War in context. The intimate story of "Philadelphia" (two wins and five overall nominations) helped advance a larger cause, influencing the trajectory of the gay rights movement.

But Oscar movies these days tend either to be relegated to a kind of deep period freeze (see this year's best picture-nominated British biopics "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything") or exist in a hermetic fictional world where the news is largely kept outside the gates (see "Boyhood" and "Birdman").

The modern lament about Hollywood is that it's turned into a land of risk-aversions in which the highest stakes battle is between Batman and Superman (as evidenced by, say, next year's "Batman v. Superman"). But the category that the industry calls "prestige movies" comes with its own kind of conservatism. Fears that a movie will polarize moviegoers--or that audiences simply prefer escapism to engagement--means that movies contending with hot-button issues almost never  get made. "Whenever a project like this makes it to the screen it's genuinely a feeling of a marathon run," said "Selma" producer and Brad Pitt partner Dede Gardner.

And even when such movies find a bold backer, awards voters shy away. The year that "Zero Dark" was nominated for best picture it was defeated by a movie about a different overseas conflict — the much-less-fraught "Argo." "Of course it's become a front-runner; there are no stakeholders," grumbled a "Zero Dark" principal at the time of that race. The person had a point. It was easy to reward a movie that told of events three decades earlier, that had an unambiguously happy ending and that safely sidestepped any modern consequences.

"Selma" and "Sniper," though, thrust us right up against them. That may be why, like "Zero Dark," they won't win. But there may be a larger prize. It's hard to watch the menace of police officers beating marchers in "Selma" and not feel the urgency of Ferguson. And it's nearly impossible to see Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle make tough choices and sacrifices in "Sniper" without thinking about U.S. soldiers in foreign conflicts--and, yes, why they're there in the first place.

"Sniper" has become charged because it raises the vexing issue of whether delving sympathetically into our military's perspective in a conflict equates to validation of our presence there in the first place. It's a meaty issue, which is among the reasons Sarah Palin, Michael Moore and even the supreme leader of Iran have felt compelled to weigh in.

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Lest one get too excited about Hollywood's willingness to tackle world affairs, it's worth remembering that both "Selma" and "Sniper" gained development momentum because of unlikely factors. "Sniper" had captured the interest of Steven Spielberg, who developed it with Hall before dropping out. By that point, though, it was far enough along that Warner Bros. was piqued (a bestselling book didn't hurt). The project was further aided by the interest of the beloved in-house director Eastwood and emerging star Cooper.

"Selma" took an equally back-door route. The independent film struggled to raise money for years, even with Pitt's company producing. Directors — Paul Greengrass, Lee Daniels, Spielberg again — came on and off. But it caught fire with Ava DuVernay, at the time a little-known filmmaker who was vouched for by the film's star, David Oyelowo. Eventually Winfrey gave it a boost too, the money was raised and Paramount came on to distribute. A smooth green light this wasn't.

Studio executives might be more willing to consider such films next time. "Selma" has taken in a solid $48 million domestically. "Sniper," at $307 million and going strong, is improbably the third-highest-grossing movie of 2014.

And it's more, of course, than just a dollar figure: the success offers evidence that Americans are open to serious debate via their movie screens. Terms such as "cultural conversation" sound squishy, but when cast members field questions about race inside a theater as "Black Lives Matter" protests happen outside it, something different is happening. "I think the movie is coming at a time when the nation is at a boiling point, and the movie offers a chance for us to understand and discuss why," "Selma's" Oyelowo noted to The Times .

"Sniper" has been in a particularly complex push-pull with the news. As the movie continues to draw filmgoers, the trial of Kyle's alleged killer, Eddie Ray Routh, is underway in Texas. The film is inextricable with the legal proceedings--so much so that the judge excused a dozen potential jurors because of the film's abundant publicity, while Routh's lawyers sought a delay for the same reason. It's almost hard to know where a cultural event ends and a news one begins.

Headlines have become a "kind of massive pre-promotional event" for movies, said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson. "And then sometimes you have a Hollywood movie that in turn colors views on news events. Hollywood is really good at shaping attitudes, which is why some people hate it so much."

A number of foreign-language Oscar nominees have also caused a reckoning, and in some cases denunciations, including “Leviathan” in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the allegory about corruption has touched nerves, and “Ida” in Poland, where complicity with the Nazis in World War II is still often not openly discussed. All these films have provoked and disturbed the status quo.

Still, it's worth remembering the limits of cinema. Even the most enduring movies disappear from theaters after a few months, and often from our consciousness not long after that. And not every movie with topical elements ignites the public imagination — witness the Weinstein Co.'s uneven results trying to connect "The Imitation Game" to the gay rights movement.

There's also hardly strong evidence that this year's Oscar nominees are changing attitudes as much as reflecting them; as Hall said of the debate over "Sniper," "I think a lot of people are taking out of the movie what they come in with."

And even those who believe movies can bring home an experience in a unique way may want to keep in mind the fundamental inadequacy of the form. As the "Sniper" controversy was reaching a boil, Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore offered a worthwhile caveat. "Both sides need to remember," he said, "that the actual theater of war is different from watching a war in a theater."

@ZeitchikLAT

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