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How Oscar Best Picture Nominees Aim to Stay Relevant

From the Pope and the Vatican to D.C. movers and shakers, this year's Oscar players make their best pitch for relevance.

Best Picture Nominees Stay on Message
Courtesy of HBO

With final Oscar ballots set to go out at the end of the week, a number of this year’s best picture nominees are making their sharpest pitches for relevance in the race.

The Big Short” director Adam McKay (pictured) has a trip to Washington, D.C. scheduled this week to screen his film again. He has been on the hustings for a while now, making headlines last month after a similar trip, in which he screened it for an approving Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said the movie “should add energy to the push for real accountability in our broken financial system.”

McKay also met with representatives of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Intl. Monetary Fund, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. From there, he took his message to HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” where he made an attempt to further broaden the film’s lessons. “It really raises the question about American culture and our 24-hour information cycle,” he said on the program. “What are we really being told about climate change, about banking, about income inequality? What do we need to know?”

Funny he should ask. A week earlier, the victorious cast of “Spotlight” stood on the SAG Awards stage, representing a film that is very much about the importance of a fourth estate and an informed populace. Star Michael Keaton took that film’s message to a broader level as well, tying it to current events like the Flint, Mich., water crisis, and intoning as he accepted the award, “This is for the disenfranchised everywhere.” (The film also screened privately for the Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse last week.)

Speaking of water — an increasingly precious commodity that “The Big Short” subject Michael Burry reportedly focuses his investment time on these days — reps for “Mad Max: Fury Road” could go there if they wanted to. After all, George Miller’s opus takes place in a wasteland notable for its lack of H2O, a supply of which is lorded over by the film’s antagonist. The film also has a strong feminism angle to extol, but Warner Bros. isn’t emphasizing any of that on the campaign trail.

For those drawn to an environmentally conscious campaign message, there’s Directors Guild victor “The Revenant,” which has been swimming in that lane for a while. Star Leonardo DiCaprio spoke on the early Q&A circuit about experiencing global warming “firsthand,” with the film’s production chasing snow from Canada to South America. He also recently met with Pope Francis in Rome, a comrade for the cause, where he presented a book of artist Hieronymus Bosch’s works. DiCaprio spoke at length about one piece in particular, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which he said reflects the horrors being inflicted on the environment. (“The Revenant” tells the story of fur trappers expanding westward through early-19th century America, and the destruction they wrought.)

Not to be discounted, Fox is looking to connect “The Martian” and its inherent message of science as religion. An upcoming event on the studio’s Century City lot aims to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Aspects of other films resonate with the zeitgeist but don’t necessarily provide a framework for a campaign. During a repeat viewing of “Bridge of Spies,” for instance, a conversation James Donovan (Tom Hanks) has with his son about classroom protocol in the event of an atomic bomb blast stands out. Donovan’s words felt like a conversation today’s parents must have with children who ask about a school shooting. There’s also a streak regarding the importance of diplomacy that runs through the film, with a line from Donovan that particularly reverberates in these combustible times: “We need to have the conversation our governments can’t.”

“Brooklyn’s” depiction of the immigrant experience also takes on an interesting shade in the wake of fear-mongering over Syrian refugees.

Everything resonates in its own way. Harnessing that essence into a message that speaks to Academy voters is one of the many chapters in the Oscar campaign book.