When it comes to Oscar season, the old "it's just a movie" dodge doesn't apply. Part of the Academy Awards ritual is that best-picture contenders, enjoying their six weeks in the media limelight, are scrutinized not only for what they include but what they leave out on issues of racism, historical accuracy and political ideology.
When the boutique studios like Miramax and DreamWorks were flexing their muscles in the late nineties, there was a rash of Oscar smear campaigns, designed to plant doubts about such Oscar favourites as A Beautiful Mind (When casting your vote, consider – was A Beautiful Mind's John Nash an anti-Semite?), Saving Private Ryan and The Pianist.
Eventually, the negativity began to reflect badly on the Oscars and in 2004, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences outlawed negative campaigns. In practice, the new rule has just made the campaigns more stealthy. In 2009, timely stories appeared about Slumdog Millionaire's impoverished child stars; in 2011, headlines appeared about The King's Speech hero, George VI, and his alleged Nazi-sympathizing past.
This year, only the ecumenical fable Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's novel, has completely escaped political censure, although most of the others have got off lightly. Les Misérables, a story now well-distanced from its rousing 19th-century radicalism, has failed to spark the ready rage of Tea Partiers or Fox News pundits. Even Austrian director Michael Haneke's Amour, dealing with disability and death, has been largely exempt from controversy, in contrast to the outrage around Million Dollar Baby in 2005. And although a few critics have accused this year's Silver Linings Playbook of treating mental illness as a cute quirk, many more have praised it for highlighting the issue.
Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, is supposed to be controversial for its cartoon violence and use of the N-word but, in reality, the film has drawn little enemy fire, beyond Spike Lee's tweet that he wouldn't see a film that disrespected black history. By now, Tarantino's knowing political incorrectness seems to have earned him a free pass, especially since his movie is not a serious best-picture contender.
Beasts of the Southern Wild , a fable of resistance from the perspective of a child, hasn't been quite as lucky, despite rave reviews and endorsements from Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. African-American poet-activist bell hooks has denounced it as racist fantasy which celebrates the "pornography of violence." But this low-budget, no-star, first-time feature is already such an outlier success that no criticism can really hurt it.
Perhaps most of this year's critical oxygen has been burned off in the firestorm around Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But accounts of an anti-Bigelow "smear campaign" are absurd. In the midst of the fierce ongoing debate about the morality and legality of the United States's anti-terrorism tactics, no studio publicist needed to push the film's detractors, including New Yorker writer Jane Mayer or documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, to challenge Bigelow's portrayal of the CIA's practices. Doubters were unlikely to be mollified by Bigelow's flag-waving response in the Los Angeles Times – that the film was a portrait of "ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes [her italics] crossed moral lines, who laboured greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defence of this nation."
Oscar-season criticisms may have derailed Zero Dark Thirty's Oscar chances but they've only slightly tarnished Lincoln's halo, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner's claim that the film was "inordinately accurate." The complaints have ranged from trivial (Daniel Day-Lewis's pierced ears) to sins of omission and distortion, played out in The New York Times. African-American studies historian Kate Masur struck a chord in an opinion piece when she said the movie "perpetuates the notion that African-Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation." Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Lincoln scholar Eric Foner, in a letter to the Times, said the film "grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January, 1865, the war might have ended with slavery still intact." In an interview on CNN, Foner added this useful advice: "I recommend that people see it – and then read a book about Lincoln."
Argo, currently considered the best-picture favourite, has its issues. Most people know the film contrived the depiction of the suspenseful escape from the Tehran airport in 1980. Some critics, including the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi in a Globe and Mail article, have called the film racist for its portrayal of Iranians, while others have faulted it for failing to cast a Latino actor, instead of Affleck, as CIA agent Tony Mendez.
Yet over all, Argo is enjoying an unusual amount of dramatic licence. Iran is still regarded as the No. 1 choice for the next U.S. invasion, and Mendez, who has a movie-tie-in book, hasn't complained about the casting. As for Argo's original postscript, which mocked the honours heaped on Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor, Affleck fixed that, while turning an espionage coup that used to be called "the Canadian Caper" into an excuse for American patriotism. As Canadians, we're used to this and diplomatically adroit enough to let some things slide.