by Roger L. Simon
Whatever its ideological virtues, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (directed by Davis Guggenheim, produced by Laurie David, Laurence Bender and Scott Z. Burns) is a highly conventional business, part over-blown campaign film replete with puffery about the candidate and corny jokes about the opposition, part earnest Discovery Channel-style documentary with the usual didactic visual aids and animations. It is light years from the cutting edge of the documentary form. In fact, it borders on the stodgy.
Yet-in a year with few clear Oscar favorites-with the exception of Helen Mirren’s title performance in The Queen, Gore’s global warming flick stands alone as a lock for an Academy Award this February 27th.
It won’t deserve it.
So how does it come to be a surefire Oscar winner? At first glance this is just another example of Hollywood’s vaunted liberals honoring one of their heroes for producing a film validating the conventional wisdom on global warming. And, yes, as the Zen Buddhists say, “First thought, best thought.”
But it is more than that. Gore’s victory in February is insured by being in the one category of Academy Award voting – the documentary – that could arguably be called corrupt.
To be clear, in my over twenty years as an Academy voter I have seen very little that could fairly be termed corruption. (No one has ever tried to bribe me, alas). On the contrary, the Academy Awards are, in all, despite what the public might think, a pretty clean election.
But the documentary division is another matter. In 1995, one of the most highly regarded documentaries of the last decade, Hoop Dreams, about black kids trying to get into the NBA, didn’t even get nominated. This generated a controversy about the nominating process in that division that has never been resolved.
Members of their respective divisions nominate movies for Academy Awards. For the bigger categories (actors, directors, screenwriters, etc.) the assumption is made that the members have seen the films before they vote. These days we are all sent DVD screeners, which makes that process relatively easy. Not so for the documentaries, a much less commercial area (an exception being the richly-funded An Inconvenient Truth for which we have all received DVDs).
This leaves documentaries to be judged by a very small group of volunteers from that division (estimated at 30-35 persons) who have time to troop down to the Academy to view the potential nominees. For the most part, these people are retired or close to it. Being of a certain age, their view of the documentary form is, again for the most part, from a different era. They tend to be more comfortable with old-style talking heads docs like Gore’s (called “archival” in the trade) and less comfortable with the more creative verité approach of Hoop Dreams etc.
Good news for Al.
After this retrograde committee delivers an undeserved nomination to Gore (technically to his producers, but we all know the award goes to The Man Almost Who), the Academy at large gets to vote. Most pay very little attention to the documentaries. An Inconvenient Truth will be judged almost entirely on its ideology and hardly at all on its cinematic value or lack thereof. (For the record, I am concerned about global warming but since-like the former Veep-I am not a scientist, I get confused when the Russian Academy of Science says the real problem is global cooling, as it did last summer.)
Academy writers’ division member David Freeman put it this way: “This is an age of great documentaries and the Academy as usual is six steps behind.”
As I said, good news for Al.
Pajamas Media CEO Roger L. Simon has an Academy Award nomination in screenwriting for his adaptation of Isaac Singer’s “Enemies, A Love Story.”