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Pssst! Whispers aim to silence Oscar buzz

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On Oscar night, all of Hollywood comes together in a big self-congratulatory group hug.

But first comes the Oscar race, which involves cutthroat campaigning against rival films. Outright attack ads were outlawed by the Academy in 2004, but the negativity has moved underground. Bring on the whisper campaigns.

The mode -- often working through social media, where rumours are easy to spread and hard to pin down -- has a certain junior-high predictability. But the message is unexpected: Most Oscar sabotage involves challenging a film's scientific accuracy or historical veracity. That seems like a strange strategy for an industry that calls itself "The Dream Factory."

Last year, the primary targets were Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. This year, several prestige films are having to defend themselves, resulting in some fascinating stare-downs between historical fact and cinematic truthfulness.


The anti-Gravity campaign was inadvertently started by super-scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His hilariously specific middle-of-the-night tweets dealt with issues that might torture astrophysicists (angular momentum, debris orbits) but would probably float by the rest of the space movie's enthralled audience. Tyson's later statements -- that, in fact, he liked Gravity quite a lot, that the things the film got wrong were glaring because of all the things it got right -- prove he knows the laws of physics but also understands the laws of movies. (Also, he just loved the way Sandra Bullock's tears floated away in zero gravity.)


Is Richard Phillips, captain of a ship held hostage by Somali pirates, a hero? In the real world, his heroism is being tested by a lawsuit filed by former shipmates. In the movie world, he's Tom Hanks. Despite director Paul Greengrass's commitment to working in moral grey areas, this is not really a fair fight.


This fictionalized film recounts the story of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, who resisted Walt Disney's desire to turn her book into a movie, worried dancing penguins and spoonfuls of sugar might overwhelm the stern lessons of her text. Now the Disney studio has done exactly the same thing with this biopic, which is far sunnier than the actual story. (At one point Travers answers a question about whether she has children by saying, "Not precisely," an ominous hint that is never followed up.) Tom Hanks (him again!) plays Disney as the kind of folksy, fatherly, all-American dreamer you'd expect in, well, a Disney movie. Thankfully, Emma Thompson's crisply hilarious turn as Travers manages to embody all the prickly, inconvenient realities the script would rather smooth over.


Even as whisper campaigns go, this one has been fairly quiet, as no sane person wants to suggest slavery wasn't an inhuman atrocity. The website Hollywood vs. History mildly suggests in real life Benedict Cumberbatch's hypocrite preacher was better than the movie suggests but the sadistic, predatory plantation owner played by Michael Fassbender was actually worse. Since the harrowing 12 Years is the first film to face full-on the extent of slavery's brutality and degradation, could we maybe agree to stop quibbling about details?


"If the new Coen brothers film is meant to be a portrait of pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village, how well did it do?" asks one cultural columnist. Well, now, that's a big "if." Coen brothers movies aren't usually "portraits" of anything but their own weird, beautiful selves, which means the second part of the question -- how well did it do? -- is irrelevant. Talking about the film's coded, changed-up nods to Dave Van Ronk and the Kingston Trio and Ramblin' Jack Elliott will prove you know a lot about folk music, but anyone looking for strict historical accuracy in a Coen brothers movie doesn't know much about cinema. These are the guys, after all, who crossed 1960s Minnesota with the Book of Job and the Depression-era south with Homer's Odyssey.


Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman forced to give up her child by the nuns who ran a workhouse for unwed mothers in the 1950s. Co-star, co-writer (and fabulously angry lapsed Catholic) Steve Coogan conflates characters and sets up a climactic showdown that never happened. Does the movie then constitute "a hateful attack on Catholics," as critic Kyle Smith claims? Not according to a motherly open letter from the real-life Philomena, who pointed out she's a Catholic, thank you very much: Though she lost her child, she never lost her faith. Dench brings effortless truthfulness and humanity to a controversial role. Meanwhile, the film has renewed calls in Ireland for a full inquiry into these church-run institutions, so there could be more of the historical record to come.

In 2013, the whisper campaigns are getting more sophisticated. So are the defences against them. Filmmakers are less likely to make the fatal error of claiming absolute historical accuracy until that position becomes untenable and then suddenly switching to the "it's only a movie" fallback stance.

Take The Butler. Director Lee Daniels has been frank and upfront about the film's "inspired by" approach to the history of an African-American butler who served several White House administrations. Or take Tom Hanks' recent red-carpet admission P.L Travers would have "absolutely hated" Saving Mr. Banks. What might look like a PR slip is probably a canny strategy to disarm criticism.

As audiences, we need to be aware of the relationship between movies and the histories they portray. Some films have a plausible surface "truthiness" that can end up being dangerously false. But there are also risks when we dismiss outright any film that strays from strict factual accuracy. Movies are not history, and they shouldn't be mistaken for history, but they occasionally illuminate and intensify history in important and powerful ways.

That's probably why Oscar whisper campaigns usually fail. (And not just when Tom Hanks is involved.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 D2

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