The politics of the Oscars

By Ian Dunt

This year’s Oscars have an undeniably political flavour. It may not be the year of Michael Moore jeering at his audience about fictional presidents or Marlon Brando’s decision to send a Native American activist to claim the award rather than himself. But all the contenders for best picture have a specific political message. apart from one.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Brad Pitt vehicle about a man who ages backwards, turning from an old man at the start of his life to a young baby when he approaches death, makes overtures to some of the major political events of the century. He is born as the first world war ends, fights in the second, and the story ends as hurricane Katrina pounds New Orleans. What does it all mean? Absolutely nothing. None of the historical events have any bearing on the story whatsoever, apart from vaguely worded filler about the barbarity of war from Brad Pitt’s character. It’s just there to give the movie a sweeping, epic feel. And very well it did that too, given its place in the running for a multitude of awards.


One of the two explicitly political films on offer this year, Frost/Nixon recreates the infamous interview between the British broadcaster and the disgraced former president. An abiding fascination with the ins-and-outs of Nixon’s presidency certainly distinguishes those who enjoy the film from those who don’t, but at its heart this is a movie about television itself. Its main source of inspiration is not really the interview in question, but a televised debate between Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960. Those in the studio audience at the time swore Nixon had won, but the experience was different on television, where Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup – he deemed it effeminate – made him look sweaty, tired and uncomfortable. It was the first time pundits realised the all-encompassing power of television in politics. We see its effects now, with the youthful appearance of opposition leaders like David Cameron and Nick Clegg one of the primary motivations in their selection.


The second overtly political movie, this time concerned with the ascension of America’s first successful openly gay politician – Harvey Milk. There are overtones of Barack Obama, of course, with one man’s attempt for representation dominating proceedings. And it’s difficult not to feel stirred by some of Milk’s success in San Francisco’s infamous gay district, Castro Street. The picture could have used a little more moral complexity. Milk is portrayed as a borderline martyr – committed, smart, successful. And his eventual assassination merely confirms this saint-like status. One of the primary difficulties from a British perspective is that nothing particularly new is being said. But movies of this type are better viewed from an American viewpoint, where the struggle for gay rights remains far more contentious than it does on this side of the Atlantic. Good fun, but pretend you’re watching it in Kansas.

The Reader

The story of a man remembering his affair with a beautiful German woman he later discovers was a concentration camp guard reiterates a tired, old Hollywood message: the redemptive power of art. The couple, played by Kate Winslet and David Kross/Ralph Fiennes (the former as a young man and the latter as his older self), based their relationship on sex and him reading literature to her. But the primary message – that even the worst of us can find some kind of vindication in the beauty of arts and music and poetry – is as boring as it is false. Art never stopped anyone from committing terrible acts, and some of the worst murders and human rights violators in history were fiercely sentimental. While we’re on the subject, Hitler was a vegetarian. Enough said.

Slumdog Millionaire

The firm favourite for the prize, Slumdog Millionaire tells the tale of Jamal, a poor slum dweller who eventually manages to win the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and get his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful – I mean really beautiful – Latika, at the same time. As a modern fable, its political content is minimal, although there are some implicit messages about poverty and police corruption. Far more interesting is the movie’s political ramifications in the real world. As a British film (British lead, British director, British funding) set in Mumbai, India, the entire project could easily have fallen into the ugly category of a white man’s vision. Instead, it almost sweats an enduring fascination with the heady, bustling life of Mumbai and its residents. The reaction to the film among British-Asian audiences – who really took it to heart – has been telling. So have the disparaging comments from some quarters that it focuses too much on the poverty and suffering of India, rather than its more pleasant aspects. But as one media studies lecturer told me recently – historically, it’s the middle classes who usually make that complaint.