It’s Oscar season, so naturally that means all the smear campaigns are in full swing. Some of the smear campaigns are at their peak, some have run their course, and some are just now beginning. If you’re unfamiliar with this aspect of the Academy Awards, here’s a primer: human beings are terrible, but studios are worse, so they actively campaign against other movies competing for Oscars, usually pretty transparently. This happens to be a year in which I don’t agree with a single negative campaign, so I’m going to run my own smear campaigns against all the smear campaigns. I cordially invite you to join me on the campaign trail.
First up, the toughest stop: American Sniper
The smear: Sniper’s critics have complained that the movie doesn’t address the accusations of slander made against Chris Kyle’s book, in which he makes claims that were ruled false in court (none of the disputed claims involved the war- they instead involved Jesse Ventura); and they have complained that it’s jingoistic, right-wing propaganda for the war in Iraq.
Smearing the smear: I tend not to read much about movies I know I want to see, so I knew none of this when I saw the movie. Maybe this gave my first impression a boost, but regardless, I thought Clint Eastwood’s Sniper was a thoughtful exploration of a specific kind of person. While Kyle makes a lot of bold claims within the movie about why he decided to enlist, the plainly shot movie treats his patriotism objectively and never seems to take a stance on America’s place in the war. Sniper does treat Kyle like an American hero, which I suppose is arguable, though it’s inarguable that he saved many American soldiers’ lives. If you know anything at all about the way Eastwood directs (he shoots rehearsals, doesn’t do many takes, and is generally about efficiency in storytelling), then you can see how he may not have thought much about this story being a political firestorm or about including anything involving Jesse Ventura. Instead, he seems to have told a simple, effective story about an elite American soldier’s struggles both in the war and as a veteran here at home.
You may have also heard about the robot baby. Again, I didn’t know about it before the movie. Therefore, I didn’t even noticed how fake it looks- and it does look fake. Why didn’t they use a real baby? I don’t know. But who cares?
Next stop on the trail: Foxcatcher
The smear: One of the movie’s subjects, Mark Schultz, after supporting the film at first, went on social media to decry the implied homosexual relationship between him and his benefactor, John Du Pont, as “sickening” and “a lie”; he also called, Bennett Miller, the director, a “punk”, “pussy”, and “liar”.
Smearing the smear (spoilers ahead): I can only imagine how hard it must be to watch a movie about your brother’s murder, so we’ll give Schultz some grace here. It would be hard to argue that Miller didn’t construct a specific scene to imply a homosexual relationship between Schultz and Du Pont (’cause he definitely did), and I’m not actually sure about the ethics of that decision. Is it okay to make assumptions about someone’s biography within a movie presented as an adaptation of a true story? I don’t know. I do know that Foxcatcher is an eerily effective look at psychosis and male relationships with three astounding performances. I’m sure I’d be pissed if I was Mark Schultz, since the movie depicts him falling apart at the seams; but I’m not Mark Schultz, so the best I can do is give an honest evaluation of the movie, and it gets full marks from me.
The easiest stop: The Theory of Everything
The smear: The movie presents a soft, romantic version of Stephen Hawking’s life without really devoting any time to explaining his theories, which are the real contribution he’s made to this world.
Smearing the smear: The Theory of Everything doesn’t do much with Hawking’s theories, but that’s fine. Director James Marsh and the filmmakers made the conscious decision to focus on his condition (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and his relationship with his first wife. I understand the argument that they perhaps made too many easy parallels between his studies of time and the idea that he thought he didn’t have much time left, but I think the artistry of the rest of the movie movie lends that decision legitimacy. By choosing to focus mainly on Hawking’s debilitating disease and his first marriage, the filmmakers were able to highlight two wonderful performances more fully (Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane) and to present fascinating moral tensions between the two of them as they navigate their differences in faith, their efforts to maintain a relationship in the face of overwhelming odds, and the eventual, sensible dissolution of their marriage.
The stop most likely to derail this campaign: Selma
The smear: Multiple people have bashed Selma for portraying LBJ as a villain rather than MLK’s accomplice (or even the man who had the idea to march in Selma in the first place).
Smearing the smear: Moving past the fact that these critics have made a movie about MLK into a movie about LBJ, the thing that everyone is overlooking about Selma’s depiction of LBJ is that the worst thing about it is the performance itself. Tom Wilkinson is generally a very good actor, but he’s horribly miscast as Johnson; he’s literally the worst part of the movie. A better performance arguably would have served the screenplay better, and we could have avoided all this chaos.
Beyond the bad performance, I think the only way you come out of Selma seeing LBJ as the villain is if you only watch the parts of the movie with LBJ in them and completely disregard the rest of the movie, which clearly presents other people (some of them black) as bigger obstacles than LBJ. If you’re so worried about a former president’s reputation being sullied, take comfort in the fact that our public school education includes quite a bit on LBJ and will paint its own picture of him while virtually ignoring the march in Selma.
Here were my initial thoughts on Selma.
The final stop: Boyhood
The smear: Some have accused Boyhood of racism on the same level as The Birth of a Nation, widely recognized as the first feature film (it was released in 1915), which depicts the KU KLUX KLAN AS AMERICA’S SAVIORS.
Smearing the smear: Blahhhhhdsfoscxmlvclmvlmflmw *throws computer, rips out hair, kicks couch, smashes window*
Look, the fact that there are only a couple Latino characters in the movie (and the fact that they’re construction workers) could be problematic, and we don’t need to let Richard Linklater, the director, off the hook for it. But can we please avoid comparisons to the most racist film of all time? I’ll be among the first to remind everyone that racism is still a major (MAJOR) problem and it sucks and it’s everywhere and I hate it, but can we at least all admit that we’ve come far enough that our movies aren’t as racist as a movie that shows lynching as a viable solution to America’s problems?