In Hollywood, the line between socially conscious gems and politically strident agitprop can be razor thin, which has backfired on Oscar hopefuls willing to tackle such topics as Iraq (“Jarhead”), terrorism (“Munich”) and political corruption (“All the King’s Men”) in recent years. However, for each of 2008’s well-meaning issue movies, at least one like-minded classic has resonated with Oscar in the past.
BODY OF LIES
The issue: Torture, terrorism and trying to understand “why they hate us” preoccupies Ridley Scott’s Mideast thriller. The same issues backfired for “Rendition” last year, but what about earlier?
Precedent: The Academy took 2005’s “Syriana” seriously, and in some respects, “Body of Lies”
delivers its message in a more conventionally entertaining
THE LUCKY ONES
The issue: Film details the troubles three wounded Iraq War veterans have readjusting to society. By not condemning the war outright, this drama avoids walking through the shadow of “In the Valley of Elah.”
Precedent: Showing sympathy toward vets, “The Lucky Ones” echoes World War II coming-home story “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which collected seven Oscars (including best picture) back in 1947.
The issue: The openly gay San Francisco city supervisor helped defeat a statewide initiative to limit civil rights. Film comes out the same year Californians will vote on a proposition against gay marriage.
Precedent: “Philadelphia,” about a landmark discrimination suit, earned Tom Hanks an Oscar as early as 1994, and “Brokeback Mountain” proved gay-themed stories could crack the best picture race.
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA
The issue: Spike Lee champions the untold heroism of African-Americans soldiers in World War II, criticizing the lopsided nature of most Hollywood war stories in the process.
Precedent: “Glory” spotlighted a courageous all-black company in the Civil War, winning three Oscars in the process. But Native American-themed “Windtalkers” went empty-handed.
The issue: Talkshow comic Bill Maher travels the world questioning (“mocking” would probably be more accurate) the faithful in an effort to sow skepticism.
Precedent: Ever since Michael Moore’s incendiary “Bowling for Columbine” earned best documentary kudos in 2002, strong personalities have been injecting themselves into agitprop docs.
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
The issue: Errol Morris questions what the photographic evidence of torture taken by soldiers stationed in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison really tells us about those incidents.
Precedent: Docs are actually the one category that embraces all things critical of the Iraq War. In fact, last year’s winner, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” addressed the torture issue, and repetition shouldn’t hurt “S.O.P.” (after all, the Academy never seems to tire of Holocaust docs).
The issue: Celebrates soldiers who have served, but criticizes a policy that sends them right back to the front as soon as their tour of duty has ended.
Precedent: More overtly antiwar than “The Lucky Ones,” Kimberly Pierce’s film echoes such Vietnam survivor stories as “Coming Home” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” both of which earned eight noms, including picture and director.
The issue: Race relations, as viewed through the eyes of an emotionally repressed professor who
befriends an illegal immigrant found squatting in his New York apartment.
Precedent: From “Hiroshima mon amour” to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Oscar has historically been forward-thinking about mixed-raced couples and sympathetic toward the immigrant’s plight (nominating such films as “Dirty Pretty Things”).
The issue: Pokes fun at lame-duck George W. Bush. It’s tempting to compare Oliver Stone’s latest presidential biopic to earlier Oscar faves “JFK” and “Nixon”…
Precedent: … when in fact, the ripped-from-the-headlines satire actually falls closer to “Wag the Dog” and “Primary Colors,” both of which were released during Clinton’s tenure, earning acting and writing noms — or “Dr. Strangelove” on the heels of the Cuban missile crisis.
The issue: The post-apocalyptic Pixar toon is deliberately vague about why the human race has evacuated Earth, but offers environmental consciousness as the answer.
Precedent: “Happy Feet” snagged an animated Oscar while preaching about global warming, doing so the same year the Acad deemed “An Inconvenient Truth” worthy in the docu category.