Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Fearless Oscar Predictions

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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.

Most Dangerous Man in AmericaThe 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.

Food, Inc.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.

The CoveAnd 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.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Andrew Catauro

    FOREIGNID: 22982
    Bring it on, I’m ready for some soup!

  • Matt Groff

    FOREIGNID: 22989
    This is what is maddening about the Academy. You nailed it, Tom, when you wrote:
    “It’s hard to deny the powerful notion … that voting for this movie could actually be a step toward saving the lives of so many sweet, intelligent, beautiful creatures.”
    This will propel The Cove to the Oscar win, yet couldn’t the same sentiment above apply to the Burmese of Burma VJ? Is there a better way to bring notice to the plight of those suffering under that totalitarian regime than to award an Oscar to the (best, imho) film that courageously documents this terrible and oppressive regime and those with the courage to defy it?
    Dolphins are cute and intelligent and deserve to be protected, but fellow humans they are not.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 22993
    Thanks, Matt, but are you daring me to step out on to that slippery ethical slope? OK, I’ll put my toe in it. I agree with you: the same thing could easily be said that a vote for Burma VJ could be a step toward liberating the Burmese. And if I had to choose between the life of a person and a dolphin, I’d save the person. But, if it comes down to stopping this annual massacre of dolphins versus pushing the Burmese government to be less repressive, I’m not sure where I stand. Perhaps the more important issue is that I do believe that, of these two films, The Cove has a better chance of achieving its goal.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 23008
    I’ve given my previous comment a little more thought and I’d like to modify it a bit. I don’t want to come off suggesting that the plight of the people of Burma–so many of whom have been killed and imprisoned and tortured by that repressive regime—can be compared to the killing of dolphins. The truth is, I feel that it’s unfair to make it into an either/or scenario. Both causes deserve to be championed.