Imagine the Oscar campaign that "Apocalypse Now" could run if it were released today. Six months in the jungle! Typhoons! Fires! Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and was forced to leave the movie for a few weeks! Bloated budget! Bloated Brando! But all in the service of art, a movie that its director, Francis Ford Coppola, calls a "monument," a "real piece of work about an important American era."
In other words, if "Apocalypse Now" used the same tactics being employed by the consultants working on "The Revenant," Coppola and not the team that made "Kramer vs. Kramer" would probably have ended up holding the Oscar for best picture. (No knock on the well-acted "Kramer vs. Kramer," the movie that taught me how to make French toast.)
With Alejandro G. Iñarritu's shot-using-only-natural-light, so-very-hard-to-make western winning the best picture honor from the British Film Academy on Sunday, the Oscar needle would seem to be pointing a bit more in the direction of "The Revenant." Iñarritu also won the Directors Guild award last weekend, becoming, the year after "Birdman," the first director to win back-to-back. And Emmanuel Lubezki won the American Society of Cinematographers prize Sunday.
While "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" engage in a duel over which movie is more timely and important, the campaigners for "The Revenant" have been content to trot out a single magic-hour image of Leonardo DiCaprio and Native American actor Arthur Redcloud. With it, there are two blurbs, featuring words like "fable" and "transcendence."
The money quote from film historian David Thomson, writing in Film Comment: "This is a great film, one that returns us to an original aspiration in moviemaking: Have you seen this?"
That's the appeal of "The Revenant" in a nutshell: Challenging to make, astonishing to watch.
The striking, streamlined for-your-consideration ads call to mind the work of Fox Searchlight art director Mark Caroll's campaigns for the last two Oscar best picture winners, "Birdman" and "12 Years a Slave." Both campaigns relied on imagery and a key thought. "Birdman" used the words "Risk. Truth. Love. Above All," accompanied by dozens of photos from the film. The "12 Years" ads simply said: "It's time."
By contrast, the publicity for "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" bombards voters with blurbs, information about prizes won and a pile-up of taglines. "Spotlight," the journalism drama about a team of reporters investigating a Catholic church pedophilia cover-up, proclaims that "One film moves us with the truth." Also: "One film breaks the silence." Also: "One film forced us to question the facts." And: "Where there is courage, there is change."
Ads for "The Big Short," Adam McKay's movie about the 2008 economic crash, implore academy members that "this is the year to go big." Inside an arrow pointing up, the display calls the film "the movie you'll love" (as opposed to that other one that you simply admire?) and uses the word "big" repeatedly, highlighting storytelling, ambition, outrage and heart. (No "hair"? C'mon. Did you see those wigs?)
Both films are going after the same civic-minded voter, though that doesn't mean they'll split the vote, giving the Oscar to "The Revenant." In the preferential voting system that the film academy uses for best picture, voters rank the movies in order of preference. When a voter's first choice is eliminated, the ballot will go next to the second-listed movie.
Let's presume, based on all the evidence at hand, that the other best picture nominees — "Brooklyn," "Bridge of Spies," "The Martian," "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Room" — are going to be eliminated one by one. The key then is to convince people who vote for these films to put "The Big Short," "Spotlight" or "The Revenant" in the second spot on their ballots.
It's that Oscar math that colors the best picture race with uncertainty. Yes, recent signs point to "The Revenant." But "The Big Short" and "Spotlight" won awards this weekend too, taking screenplay honors at the Writers Guild. "The Revenant," meanwhile, wasn't nominated for its writing. That's just another challenge, I suppose, it'll have to overcome.