Hollywood hasn’t shied away from tackling timely political content, whether it involves 9/11, the war in Iraq or the economic recession. But those films have been rare in the Oscar race for best picture. Recently, there have been some notable exceptions, namely “The Hurt Locker” in 2009. But for the most part, distant wars and conflicts have dominated the category (from “Saving Private Ryan” to “War Horse”). But this year, a handful of prominent contenders — “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Impossible,” and to some extent, “Argo” — are taking on topical real-life traumas, and going beyond the headlines to provide a more intimate perception of current events.

Despite their differences in style and content, each of the films employs a similar strategy: Staying faithful to historical truths, while perhaps more importantly, capturing emotional truths. As “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter-producer Mark Boal tells Variety, “I think the goal was to portray the human side of these historic events, to take them out of the realm of speculation and make them real and vivid for the audience.”

Based on the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, and his death at the hands of a Navy SEAL team in May 2011, “Zero Dark Thirty” is the most current — and politically charged — Hollywood movie in years.

But like Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous collaboration, the Iraq bomb-squad thriller “The Hurt Locker,” which was made and released while the U.S. was still fighting in Iraq, the filmmakers have emphasized the personal over the political, the stories of individuals over the narrative’s contentious context.

Boal, a journalist, who has reported on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, did extensive research for the film, spending time interviewing dozens of experts — from White House counterterrorism officials to those working in national defense and intelligence — who were involved in the actual mission.

But as Boal told Entertainment Weekly, he was focused on understanding the characters as much as the facts. “I wanted to know what it was like to be the person responsible for hunting bin Laden, what that life was like,” Boal said. “The only way to really answer that is to talk to people who do it.”

While Ben Affleck’s “Argo” takes place in 1979-80, during the infamous Iran hostage crisis, the filmmakers felt the same sense of responsibility to get the story right, in both historical and human terms. As “Argo” screenwriter Chris Terrio says, “There’s research that is factual: you need to know what happened on what day. And then there’s research that’s more important, which gives you the life of the character.”

Indeed, despite the ’70s setting of “Argo,” most of the people depicted in the film are still alive, and the U.S.’ fraught relations with Iran aren’t much different than they were 30 years ago. And while the filmmakers couldn’t have known it, the story has taken on even more alarming relevance with the recent killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens at the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Given such circumstances, Terrio says it was essential for Affleck and him to convey a sophisticated view of the political situation in the region. And once they got those complexities out of the way, they could then focus on the human story.

“Our primary responsibility is to create empathy,” continues Terrio, “and whatever techniques I can use to do that, I employ.”

One way “Argo” — as well as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Impossible” — achieve this is through suspense. By pumping up the thrilling aspects of these narratives, “you put people in the heads of the participants,” as Terrio says, “so suspense creates empathy.”

While “The Impossible” addresses a natural, rather than a political, trauma — the cataclysmic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — director Juan Antonio Bayona also pushes the audience to “make them feel that experience,” he says. Through the film’s visceral reenactment of the powerful waves that consumed Thailand’s coast, audiences “go through all the emotions, the pain, the happiness, and feel what these people went through,” he says.

And like the filmmakers behind “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo,” Bayona says everyone in his crew felt a “deeper responsibility” to tell the story of the tsunami’s victims. “There is a lot of suffering there,” he says. “So we tried to be as faithful as possible, not just to the reality of the facts,” he adds, “but the reality of the emotions.”

Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview
Art finds surprising home | Scrappy indies aspire to level playing field | Dramas ripped from headlines | Popcorn epics’ battle for top prize |

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