Sunday, January 11, 2009

Docs on the Shortlist

A special field gets special rules. Unlike other Oscar categories, we know the best documentary nominees will come from the shortlist of fifteen contenders, winnowed down from ninety-four qualifying submissions. Six of the surviving contenders screened this weekend at the Tribeca Cinemas, presented by the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund. If you take your office Oscar pool seriously, it was a good opportunity to handicap a category that usually inspires a lot of blind guess work.

Some of the documentaries have had little theatrical distribution beyond their Oscar qualifying runs. However, the Tribeca series also featured Man on Wire (trailer here), one of the top-grossing documentaries of the year, and with good reason. When a police officer told the press Philippe Petit’s 1974 tight-rope walk across the Twin Towers was a sight he knew he would never see again in his lifetime, he was more right than he could understand at the time. That death-defying incident is the subject of James Marsh’s documentary, which happens to be one of the best films of 2008, regardless of genre.

Wire perfectly captures the significance of Petit’s unbelievable walk, as well as sheer feat of engineering the World Trade Center itself represented, and how both gave New Yorkers hope that incredible things could still happen in the City, even during its grimmest and grungiest low point. Taut and surprisingly emotional, it is an exquisitely crafted film. It deserves not just a nomination, but the final prize. However, its lack of overt political content makes that less likely, as it would rob the Academy of a potential “teaching moment” during the awards ceremony. This would not be the case with other shortlisted films which screened this weekend.

Profiling a longtime prison Chaplin in Huntsville, Texas, At the Door of the Death House (trailer here) directly addresses capital punishment, and from the first frame it obvious co-directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert are against it. Yet their subject, Pastor Carroll Pickett is such a compelling figure, the film transcends politics.

Pastor Pickett was first called to the Texas State Penitentiary during the infamous 1974 siege, in which two of his flock were held hostage in attempt by a vicious drug lord to extort safe passage to Cuba. Both of the hostages from his church were killed by the prisoners, executed facedown in front of the prison. Several years later, Pickett reluctantly agreed to return to there when the penitentiary desperately needed a Chaplin. In a moving interview sequence, Pickett explains for the camera that every morning going to work, he flashed back to 1974, seeing the bodies of his murdered parishioners in his mind’s eye, throughout his entire thirteen years at the State Pen.

Obviously, in accepting the position, Pickett responded to a higher calling than that which came from the warden. Nobody could blame him if he had turned his back on Huntsville’s inmates, yet he found humanity in them, especially those he ministered to on death row, several of whom he believed to be innocent of the crimes that sent them there. Unfortunately, the 1974 siege is the only crime Death House adequately examines. For instance, one case which particularly troubled Pickett receives a completely one-sided presentation that is far from convincing. Ultimately, Death House is more successful as a character study than a vehicle for changing hearts and minds, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

While the national debt might inspire less passion than the death penalty, it affects far more Americans. Unfortunately, director Patrick Creadon Q&A claims to the contrary notwithstanding, he clearly made I.O.U.S.A. (trailer here) with a partisan political agenda in mind. Never is a chance to criticize the Bush administration passed up. Conversely, opportunities to criticize Democrats specifically are entirely foregone (specifically their culpability as the controlling party in Congress, the budget allocating branch of government, during years of record deficit spending). Sure, lip-service is given to the bi-partisan nature of the problem, but the finger-wagging is reserved exclusively for Republicans. That hurts the film’s credibility, which is unfortunate, because it raises some valid concerns.

Give credit to I.O.U.S.A. for ringing alarm bells regarding the exploding debt, particularly in regards to the significance of the year 2030. At this point, given current revenue and spending projections, entitlement spending—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—and service payments on the national debt would consume one hundred percent of the national budget. The film also makes the important related point that even if Bush’s modest tax cuts were repealed and the war in Iraq ended today, it would only have a negligible effect on the overall looming debt crisis. I.O.U.S.A. proves surprisingly capable at explaining fiscal and monetary issues in readily understandable terms. At times though, it feels like an infomercial for the reasonably nonpartisan Concord Coalition. Despite playing favorites, its warnings need to be heeded.

I.O.U.S.A.’s subject matter might be critically important, but I do not see it making it to the final Oscar ballot. Death House is a legitimately compelling film and fits Hollywood’s politics, so it chances should at least be better than average. As one of the best reviewed films of this or any year, it would be a scandal if Man on Wire failed to win at least a nomination. The pool of voters making the cut is relatively small, so it makes prognosticating the final ballot difficult. For the record, my predictions (but not my recommendations) are as follows: At the Death House Door, Encounters at the End of the World, Man on Wire, Standard Operating Procedure, and Trouble the Water.

(As a dark horse, I will be rooting for Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. Look for a review here when it opens in New York later in the month.)