Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Documentary

Director Rory Kennedy's Last Days in Vietnam is among the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Documentary

The nominees are:

Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

The Oscars rarely get political. For its advertisers’ sake, the Academy generally tries to make its show as entertaining as possible to the widest possible range of viewers without offending anyone. Whether it succeeds on that front is a debate for another time – namely, immediately after the show – but as a rule, hosts and presenters try to keep the atmosphere light and breezy and avoid kicking off a firestorm by offering any politically volatile commentary.

The one place the Academy often cannot help but get political, though, is Best Documentary. Some of the great controversial political moments in Academy Awards ceremony history have been the result or a side effect of the Documentary category. Michael Moore’s tirade against then-President George Bush and the Iraq War when accepting his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine jumps immediately to mind, as does Vanessa Redgrave using her Supporting Actress acceptance speech to shout down “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” who stood outside the ceremony protesting Redgrave’s involvement with the documentary The Palestinian.

There are others, but you get the idea, and it is possible we will have another such moment this year should the frontrunner for the award take the stage. The category is ripe for a surprise, either with who wins or what the winner will say for an acceptance speech, and at the Academy Awards, surprises spell fun.

Citizenfour (directed by Laura Poitras) – No more important film came out this year. The story of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency domestic spying scandal is a story about all of us. There is not one person in America who is unaffected by the U.S. government surveillance program, not necessarily because we all are being watched but because any one of us could be. The freedom of the individual is what the citizens of this nation have always valued – even if we have not always done our best to see this ideal through – and any encroachment on privacy is an encroachment on freedom.

Poitras’ film has taken hits in some unexpected areas for not being cinematic enough, for being an important story told badly. I could not disagree more. Citizenfour has the look and feel of a modern Hollywood thriller. From the receipt of the first encrypted communiques, the clock is ticking, counting down to the moment when Snowden and his confidantes break this scandal wide open. It is a potboiler of the highest order, watching these people navigate their lives with the weight of an ungrateful world on their shoulders.

Perhaps the most important thing Citizenfour accomplishes is to humanize the infamous Snowden. If you have followed reliable news sources, then you know much of the story of the NSA leaks, but when the news media dug their claws in, they ripped out the substance of the scandal. Politicians spun and “journalists” played their role, turning the story around on the supposed traitor Snowden rather than focusing on the government that betrayed all of us. Poitras’ film reminds us that Snowden is just a man who saw a wrong and tried to right it. By making him the story, Citizenfour shows us how much bigger the real story is.

Last Days in Vietnam (directed by Rory Kennedy) – The history of the war in Vietnam has been written in fits and starts. Documents are declassified, witnesses come forward, and new stories come out of places we might never have imagined. American filmmakers from Oliver Stone with Platoon to Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now have covered the experience of the U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. The victory at the end of almost every Vietnam War film is when the American soldier makes it home, but we cannot forget America lost, and South Vietnam fell to the communists.

Last Days in Vietnam tells the story not of the American soldiers who made it home but of the South Vietnamese fleeing the country. Using archival footage and present-day interviews, Kennedy reconstructs the mass exodus of citizens trying to escape South Vietnam as the last Americans got out. It is a thrilling tale of denial, false bravado, and true heroism that paints the story of the end of the Vietnam conflict in a rarely considered light. Kennedy spends the first half of the film setting the stage, then uses the back half to explore in detail the retrieval and evacuation efforts of several different American military units.

This is a more traditional documentary than Citizenfour, featuring the classic talking-head interviews, old news footage, and animated reconstructions of some events. It is an incredibly accomplished film on a technical level, particularly the editing, and editor Don Kleszy’s name appears first in the opening credits. The subject of the film is fascinating, and Kennedy’s storytelling is riveting. While perhaps not as topical as Citizenfour, Last Days in Vietnam would certainly make a more handsome winner than most others.

Virunga (directed by Orlando von Einsiedel) – The accomplishments of von Einsiedel and crew to bring this story to public attention belong in the annals of war reporting. This is a different kind of battlefield – a nature preserve where the last of the world’s mountain gorillas dwell. Showing patience and diligence in the face of great danger, von Einsiedel slowly unravels the corporate and governmental conspiracy that threatens to destroy Virunga National Park, located on the eastern edges of Congo.

Congo was a nation already overrun by rebel violence and various separatist factions attempting to take control of the country. When oil is discovered under Virunga National Park, the site becomes the battleground for the preservation of the beauty and natural resources of Congo, which without protection will fall to multinational energy corporations and local militias looking to profit off the newly discovered resources.

Von Einsiedel and his crew put themselves on the front lines with the park rangers who risk death to protect the gorillas and other wild inhabitants of the park. They encounter rebels and take gunfire, and some even lose their lives, but the rangers never shrink from their duty, and the filmmakers never pull out of the conflict. Virunga tells a complex story in a simple but engaging way and represents a tremendous feat by a remarkable group of documentary makers.

Finding Vivian Maier (directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel) – Vivian Maier’s story is intriguing, as would any similar mystery be, but I found myself irritated by the baldly self-serving nature of this film. Maier was a nanny who almost to the point of obsession took photographs of people she saw on the street. None of her charges knew of her hobby, and she never publicly displayed her work. After she died, Maloof purchased some of her negatives on a whim. Upon discovering the quality of the photographs, he set out to obtain as many of Maier’s negatives as he could and to share her work with the world.

Here is where it gets murky. I have no doubt Maloof thinks Maier is a talented artist who never got her due in life for any of various reasons. Uncovering these reasons could make for a fascinating documentary, but as told by Maloof – the sole owner of Maier’s work and the person who stands to profit most from increasing its value – the film plays like a stock market scam. Maloof is trying to inflate artificially the value of his stock (the photographs) so he can sell high and get out before the market crashes. A good business decision? Sure. A quality documentary? Not even close.

The Salt of the Earth (directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders) – This is the one nominee in this category I have not seen because it has not been released yet. The trailer came out recently, though. Let’s enjoy it together:

It is interesting to me that the documentary branch of the Academy would go for two admittedly very different films about photographers in the same year, but Wenders is a fantastic filmmaker, and the movie seems absolutely gorgeous to look at, so I cannot wait to see it.

The final analysis

Citizenfour has won basically every early award leading up to the Oscars, and most industry pundits have it down as a lock for the Academy Award, but I am less certain. Since Inside Job won in 2010, Academy members have shied away from overtly political documentaries, awarding a sports film and two music documentaries. Critics are quick to call the Academy a “liberal” organization, but the history only somewhat bears this out, and if such a bias were truly so all consuming, films such as American Sniper would never be considered for the top award.

Last Days in Vietnam may be a viable alternative for members who do not want to award a movie about Snowden because the wounds of his actions are still too fresh. Everyone can agree on the tragic mistake that was the Vietnam War, so that may be the safe “liberal” pick. Virunga will benefit from the added exposure of being on Netflix, and it has a touching and important storyline, but based on everything that has happened up to now, it would be unwise to predict anything but Citizenfour.

Will win: Citizenfour
Should win: Citizenfour
Wish it had been here: Life Itself

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