Every filmgoer has had the experience of being aggravated by something that doesn’t ring true.
It’s an experience that forces the audience to forgive a film’s lost verisimilitude in order to enjoy it — a leap, naturally, that not everyone is willing to make. Typically, the films that resonate with audiences while most expertly navigating these waters — that are simultaneously true to their world and to our world — become the leading candidates to win the Academy Award for best picture.
It’s ironic, then, that the best picture nominees of 2012, a year that has been celebrated as one of the better years in cinema of recent vintage, have simultaneously drawn such praise and doubt of their accuracy, their believability and ultimately, their value. It’s a debate that factors into the competish for Oscar’s grand prize.
By far the most noteworthy — its detractors would say notorious — picture in this group is “Zero Dark Thirty,” for its depiction of torture, but arguably every other nominee had some issue with capital-T Truth.
Another film largely set in the world of international conflict, “Argo,” drew snipes about finessing details of the rescue of Americans trapped in Iran, though the stakes of the debate were tempered by the 30 years that had passed and the resolution of that particular crisis.
Similarly, quibbles with historical details in “Lincoln” were plenty, while never taking on the heat of the “Zero” debate. Time heals all wounds (or at least most of them), and also softens the intense demand of factchecking. Interestingly, the hottest argument about “Lincoln” was originally whether Daniel Day-Lewis’ high-pitched take on Lincoln’s voice was too faithful to the historical record, at the expense of what many would have thought suited the president.
But works of fiction have hardly been exempt from scrutiny. “Django Unchained” comes from the imagination of Quentin Tarantino — a writer-director known for his anachronisms and willingness to tweak reality, no less — but its journey into a world of slavery and race relations that was all too real and that remains such an open wound tested the sensibilities of a portion of its audience.
“Silver Linings Playbook” was a harmless romantic dramedy, except to those who objected to some of the particulars of its depiction of mental illness.
And then there were two fictional films, “Life of Pi” and “Les Miserables,” whose truth issues had less to do with their internal worlds than faithfulness to their source material.
All this aside, these movies are significant achievements. When the time came, Academy voters either found their sins (such as they were) to be forgivable — or that they had no sins to forgive.
But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the two biggest surprises at this year’s Oscar nominations (by earning directing nods to go with their best picture picks) were “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” two films that were extraordinary in their own ways while seemingly offering little to question in their authenticity.
Michael Haneke’s “Amour” presented a story not only deeply meaningful but exceedingly real, in which the only question might have been how Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Georges had the patience and strength to care for his wife as long as he did.
Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts” takes place in the most fantastic real-life setting this side of “Pi” (with its own big animals to boot), yet establishes its own rules clearly and remains consistent to them throughout.
That’s not to say no viewers have complaints about either picture, but it could help speak to their staying power in the Oscar race despite being initially screened in the first half of 2012.
Ultimately, the question about truth in 2012 films has to circle back at “Zero,” which has been the most controversial Oscar contender for nearly two months. The debate has taken place on two planes, one arguing what the film actually says about torture, the other about what standard of truth the film should be held to.
Certainly, it must be hard for those in camp “Zero” to see it held to a level of scrutiny that every other best picture contender has avoided, even if it’s understandable, given how fresh its story is and how it remains a hot-button issue in today’s world.
In the end, it might come down to the beginning. One can’t help but wonder what difference it might have made had “Zero” not stated at the start of its film, “Based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” and relaxed the standard to which it ended up holding itself.