It’s that time of year again — when some of us roll our eyes at the foolish, self-aggrandizing notion of awards and others of us lap it up, savoring every detail, prognostication and red carpet mishap. I am solidly in the latter camp, and this year’s documentary Oscar race is a particularly interesting one because it’s a tight race that involves two POV docs.
Without question, Food, Inc. and The Cove are the frontrunners. But let’s not count out The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the dark horse in this contest. The other two nominated films? Burma VJ and Which Way Home. They don’t have a chance. But let’s break it down — from the bottom up…
Which Way Home is a film of great beauty and integrity. It is also backed by HBO, which has strong influence in the Academy. It also had a token theatrical release and whenever I speak with someone about the nominees, this is the one film that people can’t remember. Burma VJ collected a bunch of awards over the past year, and it has a lot of edgy, underground clout; but it’s a foreign-made film that takes place in a foreign country about a foreign problem. It just doesn’t have enough of a support base.
The Most Dangerous Man in America also didn’t make that much money at the box office, but lest we forget, the Academy is dominated by a particular population: aging actors with a lot of time on their hands. And who gets out to the Academy screenings to actually see the films and make an educated decision? Those aging actors. And what’s the demographic most likely to recall the Pentagon Papers and to consider Ellsberg a hero? You get my point. So, in the same way a Holocaust doc is always a threat, this is definitely the most dangerous contender for an Oscar. But, in the end, I don’t think it’ll have enough behind it, because the film, although quite good, is not exceptional in any particular way, and those recreation scenes are cheese ball.
The third biggest box-office doc grosser in 2009 (not counting the music docs) was Food, Inc., which also happens to be the highest selling DVD on Amazon at the moment. And popularity, just like with the rest of the Oscar hopefuls, counts. Just think back to 2004 for an example of a box office under-performer bringing in gold when Born into Brothels won. The foodie and environmental movements are very much a part of today’s zeitgeist, and Food, Inc. tapped into that at the right time. It is the doc of the moment, which means a lot.
But Food, Inc. has several liabilities. First, the topic is fairly broad, and it’s a rehash of what many of us have seen or read about before. Second, the film is very well made and is nicely polished, but it lacks edge; it feels to me like Factory Farming for Dummies. I know it covers an issue many of us care so much about, but I question if that can really galvanize a voter base.
And then there’s The Cove. The Cove, like Food, Inc., came to audiences riding high on a smart marketing campaign (deftly handled by distributor Magnolia), strong press, and a slew of strong reviews and awards. The film itself also plays like a smart thriller, which is to say it is entertaining, something that last year’s winner, Man on Wire, also had going for it. The Cove made more than $800,000 in theaters, and it has a very dedicated following because it has a very specific, urgent cause: saving those dolphins that are getting massacred every year in Japan. It’s hard to deny the powerful notion (whether it’s been openly articulated or not) that voting for this movie could actually be a step toward saving the lives of so many sweet, intelligent, beautiful creatures. (I also imagine that over the years, producer Fisher Stevens has made a fair number of friends in the Academy, which can only help.)
The fact that POV has two horses, Dangerous Man and Food, Inc., in this race is a huge triumph for the team. Way to go, guys. But I just don’t see a win this year. And I’m willing to put my soup on the line: I promise to make and deliver a Food, Inc.-inspired soup if I’m proven wrong on the night of March 7th.