Oscars and American history: True, or true enough?

A modest proposal: Movies exploring some aspect of American history, such as “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” should leave off the “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” language and stick to what “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner advocates: a clear, simple and proud declaration of “historical fiction.”

These are works of historical fiction. They are not documentaries. Movies based on true stories take a little truth and then make things up to make it interesting, and — sometimes — truthful in another way.

This year's Academy Awards embrace history, American history both recent and distant. Does it matter if the hotly debated films are not strict adherents to the historical record? No.

David Byrne was right: Facts just twist the truth around. If a screenwriter remains faithful, at any cost, to what we know, or we think, or we think we know for certain happened in 1865, or 1979, or a year or two ago, drama doesn't stand a chance.

The titles dominating this year's Academy Awards competition, the results of which will be hosted by the dentally exquisite Seth MacFarlane on Feb. 24, poked around our nation's wily instinct for self-preservation and came up with stories that people turned out to see in impressive numbers. It's not like last year, which was known as the Year of the Resistance to “The Artist.” A largely silent black-and-white pastiche from France but shot in Hollywood, “The Artist” made its way to the top of the Oscars heap and earned an enormous profit worldwide. Here, not bad; it did pretty well. But it felt foreign in a way that even the most exotic or flamboyantly theatrical of this year's major nominees (“Life of Pi,” “Les Miserables”) do not.

Let's stick to truthiness for a moment. How true, how literally factual are “Argo” and “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” as depictions of procedurals of the American political process in action? They vary. As historical fictions will. It is up to the individual viewer whether “Zero Dark Thirty” takes too many liberties in its placement or implications of the waterboarding sequences. Or if “Lincoln” elides certain aspects of the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Or if it matters, at all, that the exciting action climax of “Argo” is as fraudulent as the fake movie of its title, the pretend “Star Wars”-style project that provided the cover and allowed for the “exfiltration” from Tehran of a handful of Americans posing as a location scouting crew.

“Argo” makes Hollywood smell good. Its industry scoundrels, played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, serve a greater good. The good old days aren't over, as they were in “The Artist,” which won last year's best picture. They're alive and kicking, according to “Argo,” even if nobody gets a real movie out of the effort.

For months now, you could feel the 2013 Oscars (awarding work from 2012) moving toward “Argo” and “Lincoln.”

“Argo” now positions itself as the front-runner: It has won enough parallel awards, both in the United States and overseas, including the recent British Academy of Film and Television Arts top prize, to indicate a shift away from director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln picture.

It always felt like a race between these two, even though seven other pictures were nominated for best picture this year, because they're such solid consensus picks, well-liked and widely admired.

Also, they're true-blue American triumphs of the human spirit. Assuming “Argo” wins, it'll be the win denied “Apollo 13” (1995), a film in the same spirit, also featuring scenes of tense, capable government employees keeping watch on a rescue operation far, far away.

“Braveheart,” a film relishing direct, sadistic action in the face of political adversaries and certain disaster, won the year that “Apollo 13” lost. Mel Gibson directed it; just like Kevin Costner (“Dances With Wolves”) before him, he was a movie star who showcased himself, prettily, in his own showcase. Ben Affleck actually deserved a nomination for directing “Argo” but got blanked. If the Oscar goes to “Argo” (which nobody doesn't like, just like Sara Lee) and then to Spielberg for “Lincoln,” America's self-image will have been significantly improved. (See those two back-to-back, and then see “The Master,” and you'll have a very interesting and scrambled perception of the American soul.)

People respond to “Argo” for a lot of reasons, one of them, I think, being its essentially apolitical nature.

It's about a secret mission that did not end in bloodshed. It rewrites history for streamlined narrative purposes, so that the American intelligence community doesn't simply save the day; it saves the world, or at least a little piece of it. “Argo” restores our good name in the name of crackerjack entertainment. And “Lincoln” speaks eloquently to what, and whom, that good name should represent.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is more troubling, more ambiguous. This is why it doesn't have a chance at the top Oscar this year. Leaving aside the absurd exclusion of Kathryn Bigelow from this year's five directing nominees (just because she won for “The Hurt Locker,” suddenly we're done with this major talent?), the film's slippery qualities are fully in sync with the methods, plans, systems, hunches, blind alleys and breaks followed in the search for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain's CIA analyst exists less as a three-dimensional, dramatically fulfilling character than as an embodiment of our anxious, vigilant streak in a post-9/11 world. The viewer — this viewer, anyway — is left in an unusual shade of gray, not quite sure how to deal with what it took to reach a clear and final resolution to a vexing manhunt.

“Argo” isn't like that. It's a great time, a story about winning a clever intelligence game against a nasty bunch of rivals who shout “Down with America!” Affleck's film tells some truth. But it's historical fiction relaying a version of events built on the lie of its fake movie.

Some lies you can take to the bank, and then perhaps to the stage at the Dolby Theatre, formerly known as the Kodak, better known as the Oscars.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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