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Oscar Hopefuls Like ‘Selma’ and ‘American Sniper’ Warn History is Doomed to Repeat Itself

When film immerses itself in the social/political problems of the past, the upshot can often be feel-good entertainment. Sure, there was racism in “The Help,” comically antiquated excess in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and virulent homophobia in “Dallas Buyers Club.” But these ills have been cured. They’re of the past. We’re better people now. We should feel good.

But certain movies this season won’t let us off the self-recriminating hook. Among them: “American Sniper,” which in between its NRA-friendly celebration of gun culture and equating of manhood and firepower confronts the ongoing cost of our involvement in Iraq; “Selma,” which recounts the historic march led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at a time when Ferguson, Mo., is primed to explode; and “The Imitation Game,” which not only mines the dark recesses of secret governments (see Edward Snowden), but also society’s propensity to criminalize gays, at a time when recent efforts from Texas and Uganda have sought to do exactly that.

Call it serendipity: None of the filmmakers could have foreseen the most recent developments in the issues their movies address, although in the case of “Selma,” the Supreme Court’s rollback of the Civil Rights Act and various stand-your-ground cases have kept the nation’s race problems front and center.

“We were about a month into the editing room when Ferguson broke,” says helmer Ava DuVernay, whose film recounts the planning, preparations and execution of one of the more famous demonstrations in U.S. history. “There were a lot of eerie similarities.

“For instance, we don’t say ‘Mike Brown’ the way we said ‘Oscar Grant’ or ‘Trayvon Martin.’ We say ‘Ferguson,’ just like we say ‘Selma.’ In the face of police aggression against an unarmed black man, it’s seen as a collective cry from a whole community.”

Patrik Svensson for Variety

DuVernay, whose film has developed considerable heat lately, isn’t even that enthused about period pieces. “I’m not a fan of historical dramas,” she admits. “Some people don’t like romantic comedies; I don’t like period pieces. And I had to confront that about myself and ask why and it’s because I don’t like to feel like I’m being taught, that I have to take my medicine.

“I came up with a story I could tell and feel good about,” she adds. “I had to tell a story about character, a guy who didn’t ask to be in the position he was in but was thrust into it, who found himself in a historical place and acted in the moment. That I could understand.”

Audiences will understand the heroism of “American Sniper,” whether or not they can divorce it from its war, whose political foundations are more or less ignored in favor of being the story of an individual: Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the Navy SEAL sniper who finished his four tours of duty in Iraq with 160 confirmed kills (255 probable) and was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. That Iraq has heated up in recent months — with “boots on the ground” seeming an increasingly likely development — was certainly not unimaginable for the filmmakers.

“When we got the script over a year ago, well before any recent developments, it all felt very current,” says producer Rob Lorenz. “The whole area is so unsettled, and there always seemed a possibility we’d be drawn back in.”

He says the intent of the film was to “remind people how difficult that whole war was for the servicemen involved, to keep that in mind” and make a film that accomplished that through one man’s story.

“I think I’m the last person to defend Clint’s politics,” Lorenz says about helmer Clint Eastwood, “but I’ll defend his filmmaking, in the sense that he understands that a one-sided story will make an audience back away from it, especially if they feel manipulated.”

A different conflict, World War II, is the engine behind “The Imitation Game,” the story of mathematician Alan Turing and the cracking of the Enigma code, the key to Nazi communications, and a project that changed the course of the war and likely won it for the Allies. Turing, an eccentric genius, was also a homosexual and was prosecuted for that after the war, sentenced to chemical castration and committed suicide in 1954.

Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian director of “Game” says the message of his film — which is, at heart, a thriller about wartime intelligence — wasn’t just about homosexuality.

“It’s also sexism or anything that involves a fear of those who are different,” he says. “There’s not just prejudice against gays, here’s prejudice against women” — the brilliant Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, was never permitted to be a professor, Tyldum says, and her intimacy with the Enigma project was all due to Turing’s support and endorsement.

While “Imitation Game” involves itself somewhat with the emergence of MI6, the British secret service, Tyldum says current-day surveillance and NSA whistleblowing was less on his mind than the “overall theme of prejudice” and its pertinence to today’s news.

“Look at the head of Apple, who just came out,” Tyldum points out regarding Tim Cook’s recent revelation. “In 29 states, it’s now legal to fire him just because he’s a gay man. So it’s still an ongoing problem worldwide. Look at Russia, look at some of the African countries, the Middle East, Saudi Arabia.”

One reason period pieces may be more relevant to social issues is the trend of filmmakers moving away from what DuVernay calls “cradle-to-grave” biographies to focus more keenly on one or two episodes in a subject’s life.

“‘Lincoln’ benefited from that,” she says of the Steven Spielberg film. “And in ‘Selma’ we look at one event in a great life and try to provide more nuance about it, and depth.”

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