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Monday, November 19, 2012
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How Obama’s Re-Election Pulled Zeitgeist Factors Into The Oscars Race

By Joey Magidson
Film Contributor


A little after 11 p.m. on November 6, while President Barack Obama was defeating challenger Mitt Romney to remain the President of the United States, the road to Oscar glory shifted a bit under the feet of a few contenders.

While television pundits like Rachel Maddow proclaimed that the future of issues like women’s rights had been cleared up and Bill O’Reilly and his more conservative companions stated that this was a new America, the same division in reaction can be said for a group of Best Picture contenders. Some were helped by Obama getting a second term while others would have gotten an added boost by Hollywood’s likely untoward response to a Romney Presidency.

It’s no secret that the cultural and political zeitgeist can be a factor in the minds of Academy members, but depending on the year, it’s sometimes led to an overt rejection of the issues of the day. All this goes to suggest that there are many fascinating paths to take when looking at the awards hopes of a number of Best Picture players.

To begin, it’s hard not to believe Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln can only benefit from the Obama election boost. I happen to still think that Ben Affleck’s Argo remains in the driver’s seat for Best Picture, but its lead seems to be diminishing by the day and could sit on the cusp of being upended. Of course, we still don’t know the quality of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but it’s impossible to separate a film about the killing of Osama bin Laden with the fact (yes, it’s a fact) that President Obama ordered the mission.

In addition to the factors befitting high-profile contenders, the elections’ social inequality issue of “haves vs. have-nots” is reflected in other players like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Tom Hooper’s Les MiserablesGus Van Sant’s Promised Land represents environmental politics in a way that no other film this year does, so the possibility remains for environmentally conscious voters to support that flick as well.

In terms of what the Romney reaction might have been, I think we can safely say that the documentary 2016: Obama’s America wouldn’t have suddenly become a player, regardless of the category. No, it’s more likely that the Academy would look to move back to slightly darker films. More than any other films the trio of Les Miserables, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty would likely have moved up to the front of the pack.

Hooper’s epic would have provided a classy depiction of class warfare, which was as big an issue with Romney as any other in the campaign. Spielberg, of course, has a film representing a reminder of sorts about the comparison between Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Bigelow’s work would not only fit a more brooding Hollywood mood, but it would also give a reminder of the high watermark of the President’s foreign policy.

The zeitgeist factor at large all depends upon whether voters embrace or reject the issues present in both these films and in their day-to-day lives. Historically we’ve seen both, and when considering the films that won the top prize at the Oscars during the time of George W. Bush’s two terms in office, there’s a largely different look to the winners than during Obama’s time.

Bush’s Best Picture winners during in his first term were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In his second term, the winners were Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, and No Country for Old Men.

Obama’s Best Picture winners have been Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, and The Artist. As you can see, Bush’s films moved from escapist and fantasy type winners in his first term to far darker works in his second. For Obama, the opposite is true, as his first term went from dark films still somewhat pessimistic about the state of the country to the return of feel-good winners.

The second half of Bush’s Presidency saw politics come into play with the Oscars trying to capture the zeitgeist, while things during Obama’s tenure have slowly moved away from it. If this year’s election brings back real-world relevancy, political films will certainly benefit. If that’s going to not continue to be the case, though, then David O. Russell’s comedy Silver Linings Playbook, Ang Lee’s life-affirming Life of Pi, or Sacha Gervsasi’s Hitchcock could look to tickle the Academy’s fancy.

If you look at the films that can remove all of these issues and still consider themselves in solid spots, the spotlight shines on Lincoln more than any other film. Still, Argo, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty  are sitting pretty as well. Ironically, this also seems to be the consensus top four contenders for Best Picture. Perhaps will culture and politics not only help them, but maybe they’re immune from suffering from a rejection of the zeitgeist.

The thing to remember in the end, though, is that Oscar voters are a tough bunch to get a read on. While they have a method to their madness, it’s often one that can’t be fully understood until after nominations have been announced and the ceremony itself has been held.

Members of the Academy could be in a festive mood about Obama remaining in office, which could lead to the embracement of a politically relevant title, but they could also take this as a sign to move toward escapist fare or to continue the trend of celebrating movies about movies (a huge benefit to Argo or Hitchcock).

If they choose to combine the two, we could be looking at an Argo win. But if one side rules the day, it’s perhaps more prudent to look at something like Lincoln or even Silver Linings Playbook as the eventual heir to the throne of The Artist.

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  • Jessie Makowski

    I loved this article!

  • Mark J

    It’s pretty incredible how the mood of the BP winning film’s under Bush and Obama’s presidency’s changed from high to low, and low to high, respectively. Great article!

  • Jamie White

    For zeitgeist and the election, I think audiences want to be hopeful about the future and the human condition. That means Lincoln (Freedom) and Les Mis (Occupy Movement and Humanity Triumphs) beat out mental illness and Drunkenness (SLP, Flight, and The Master) physical incapacitation (Sessions) and War (Argo and ZDT).

  • Kim

    Thought provoking

  • Joey Magidson

    Thanks for the kind words…