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Making history, Hollywood-style
February 28, 2013 - Rick Chatenever
How could so many wonderful movies result in such mediocre television?
That was the question puzzling viewers after sitting through more than three hours of the Oscars last Sunday night.
Beginning with calling the show "The Oscars" rather than the more staid and traditional Academy Awards, and enlisting irreverent Seth MacFarlane to host, the show's producers seemed intent on playing catch-up with the hipper Golden Globes.
Good luck. Even though they were talking about the same movies, the Oscar show was as tone-deaf and listless as the Globes were lively and loving in the hands of Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler.
Chalk it up to changing times.
Not that long ago, when the Academy Awards ceremony took place on Sunday night, there was nothing wrong with waiting until the next Thursday to read about it in this space. No longer. These days, we want our information, and we want it NOW!
If it's not instantaneous, it's too slow. Certain once-respected mental activities - pondering, say, or weighing both sides - now feel as quaint as knee britches or three-cornered hats. We no longer have the time for them. Or the patience.
Which made the Oscars feel historic themselves, not just because of their glacial pace, but because Sunday's field included actual three-cornered hats in "Les Miserables" and the equally antique stovepipe on the head of "Lincoln."
Was this Hollywood's most exciting night - or was it the History Channel?
Most of the awards went as expected. To their credit, the academy voters were happy to pass the prizes around. A live, on-stage performance by the awesome "Les Mis" cast was the evening's high point, along with the surprise wins for "Life of Pi," but they were brief rays of light.
The history lessons, at least, were interesting. Best-picture winner "Argo," was based on a daring plot to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1979. "Zero Dark Thirty" followed the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Navy SEAL mission to kill him. "Les Miserables" added music to
Victor Hugo's classic novel set in 1832 Paris. "Lincoln" chronicled behind-the-scenes political arm-twisting to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
These film versions become the historical record for the moment, at least. History, after all, says as much about the time in which it's recorded as the time it describes.
Obviously this isn't a perfect solution. Movies spark unanswered questions about what "really" happened. Former President Jimmy Carter, while endorsing "Argo," pointed to the Canadian embassy staff, not the CIA, as the actual heroes of the plot. "Zero Dark Thirty" set off its own CIA firestorm in Washington about waterboarding and other forms of torture. Even "Lincoln," scripted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns Goodwin's game-changing book, prompted historical nitpicking.
And don't forget Quentin Tarantino, Oscar winner for best original screenplay, who never lets little things like facts spoil his version of history.
History has long been fertile ground for dramatists and filmmakers. Shakespeare, like Hollywood, saw the potential in ancient Rome. Creating drama has always been about capturing essences, not sweating the details.
Scriptwriters are probably already busy on Oscar Pistorius treatments or daring diamond heists on Brussels airport runways, long many facts are known. The 6 o'clock news feels like Hollywood script pitches for the next "Zero Dark Thirty."
True, movies may be as valid as the spin cycle known as "the news" to let us know what's going on. But you take your chances. Amidst the national debate on guns, Steven Spielberg might decide to remind us that the framers of the Second Amendment were actually talking about muskets to fight off the British Red Coats. Then again, if it's Quentin Tarantino telling the story, Ben Franklin could show up wielding an assault weapon.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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