How ‘Sniper,’ ‘Imitation Game’ and ‘Selma’ Made a Difference Beyond Oscar Race

There’s no denying that Hollywood’s awards derby is brutally cutthroat. Every studio, publicist, filmmaker and star that has skin in the game is guilty of shameless campaigning. But on the eve of the movie industry’s biggest race of all — this weekend’s Oscars — it’s worth taking a uncynical look at the backers of some of the year’s most important movies.

American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game” and “Selma” have each been repeatedly beaten up in the media for allegedly taking liberties with real-life facts. But they have also significantly raised public awareness about PTSD, Alan Turing and civil rights, respectively.

And that is likely what initially motivated the folks who made those films to get involved with those projects in the first place, rather than eventual statuettes.

Much of the debate over Warner Bros.’ “Sniper” has centered on U.S. involvement in Iraq and on the character of Chris Kyle, but there has been less attention to veterans’ other battle — transitioning to life back home.

Robert McDonald, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, told the filmmakers, “You guys and your movie have advanced the conversation about veterans more in the past two weeks than we’ve done in the last 10 years. That’s the great thing about art — it helps us have this conversation.”

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Non-profit advocacy groups including IAVA and Team Rubicon were invited on TV talkshows to discuss topics like the Clay Hunt bill, named for an Iraq veteran who killed himself in 2011. The bill, which aims to streamline the process for vets entering the VA hospital system, had been vetoed in November. But President Obama signed it on Feb. 12, with bipartisan support.

“Sniper” screenwriter Jason Hall told Variety, “A lot of today’s soldiers come from a particular socio-economic group, so fewer people know soldiers first-hand. Their problems have been lost on us, and lost on a lot of politicians. Hopefully this discussion will continue. What matters is the lasting effect.”

“The Imitation Game” has been denounced for being “not gay enough.” And there were charges of exploitation when the Weinstein Co., star Benedict Cumberbatch and the filmmakers worked to exonerate all the individuals arrested for the U.K. “crime” of homosexuality. The film was also accused of being “Oscar bait,” a movie created just to win awards.

That’s simply not true. The movie began life without a U.S. distribution deal, so Teddy Schwarzman and his Black Bear company financed it independently. The filmmakers, and Harvey Weinstein, the most aggressive campaigner in Hollywood, first and foremost wanted their movie to get made and be seen.

Schwarzman tells Variety, “Making ‘The Imitation Game’ was a great honor and responsibility for our entire team. We were motivated by nothing more than honoring an unsung hero in Alan Turing, and highlighting the tremendous injustice of his persecution. Laws may now have evolved in some countries, but there remains so much discrimination in the world, and it’s moving for us to now see this film act, in even a small way, as a catalyst for change.”

Under British law, 49,000 people were charged with “gross indecency”; 15,000 are still alive, and would like to have their names cleared before they die. So far, more than 456,000 people have signed a petition to pardon them, and the leaders of that movement are happy for the attention the film has brought.

Schwarzman is pleased about the box office and awards but concludes, “The real reward is the attention it has drawn to an incredible man, whose legacy, due to the effort of many, is finally being recognized.”

Like the other two films, “Selma” spotlights a real person. Though Martin Luther King Jr. is better known than Kyle or Turing, many young people are being exposed to his important cause for the first time thanks to the film.

One criticism of “Selma” centers on the depiction of LBJ, with the negativity fueled by awards rivals and journalists. But Shakespeare certainly took liberties with historical facts, and so has every fact-based film since the “The Private Life of Helen of Troy” (1927) at the first Academy Awards. And, bottom line, LBJ comes off very sympathetic. While many pundits lamented the film’s Oscar “snubs,” director Ava DuVernay has frequently pointed out that only eight films of 2014 were nominated for best picture, and “Selma” is one of them.

But more important is what the film accomplishes in showing events to audiences who were hazy on or ignorant of the events being depicted.

Some were cynical when Paramount and the filmmakers marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in January over Martin Luther King weekend and offered a free screening of the picture to the citizens of Selma. The screening proved so popular that African-American business leaders created a fund allowing 320,000 students in 34 cities to see the film for free.

It’s ironic that journalists lament Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, yet are equally quick to find fault with films that are personal and intimate. It’s also interesting that the heaviest criticism this year was aimed at films intended to make a positive change. In 1985, the Jane Wagner-Lily Tomlin play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” included the prescient line “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

When dealing with showbiz, skepticism is certainly understandable and necessary. But so is a little perspective. And while much of showbiz is absurd, it’s good to remember that some of the movies of 2014 have accomplished things that no legislator could.

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