Hit films with any sort of historical or sociological basis frequently come under fire from the scholars who actually know the history or culture being explored. So to help readers with their viewing of this year's Academy Awards, we asked academic experts on the issues examined in each best picture nominee to evaluate the films. Imagine our surprise when we found that this year's celebrated flicks (with one exception perhaps) are winning raves from the relevant experts.
Here are our scholars' analyses of the nominees (in alphabetical order by film):
Scholar: Peter Boag, professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest and such articles as "Sexuality, Gender and Identity in Great Plains History and Myth."
Evaluation of the film: "Brokeback Mountain does great justice to certain elements of
its topic, particularly the increasing difficulty that men in the U.S. in the period after World War II encountered when trying to find ways to express love and affection for each other. Also, the film did well to show the uncertainty and fear that those struggling with homosexuality face, especially (but not only) those in rural parts of the country like Wyoming. Finally, I know quite a bit about the isolation that many who deal with homosexuality can confront (both today, but especially in the 1960s and 1970s) and I have also lived in very remote portions of the West. In this regard, I feel the film did a remarkable job of juxtaposing these real human feelings with the often austere and sweeping western scenery. The loneliness and aloneness of both can very much reinforce each other. On the other hand, the at times friendless Western landscape can ironically offer solace and even escape from such isolating feelings. The film showed both these. This, I think, is how the film best succeeded for me as both a historian of sexuality and of the Western American environment. Brokeback Mountain still haunts me some two and a half months after seeing it for the first time."
Prediction on which film will win: "I would hate to make any judgment about what I think will win best picture at the Academy Awards -- I think my tastes in film and story-telling do not often match the academy's. But, I would personally very much like to see Brokeback Mountain win, for certainly the Oscar is one measure of a film's success and I think this film is quite successful."
Scholar: Ralph F. Voss, a professor of English at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa who was a high school junior in a small town in Kansas when the murders Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood took place.
Evaluation of the film: "The film did justice to the parts of Capote's life that it tried to portray -- his obsession with his art (to the exclusion, at times, of the generosity of others), his deep emotional entanglement with In Cold Blood, and his inability, finally, to escape his own cold-bloodedness in bringing his 'nonfiction novel' to print. It's as though he knew he'd never done anything finer, and would never do anything as good again."
Prediction on which film will win: "I think Capote won't win because [Phillip Seymour] Hoffman's acting seems so inseparable from the story (and I think Hoffman will win best actor). Good Night, and Good Luck will win because I love the way that film examined a particular period and a particular way of looking at it -- with its relevance to the present constantly present and constantly understated. Brokeback Mountain is going to get a lot of support because of the way it tackles controversy and prejudice so gloriously. My hunch is that there'll be a kind of last-minute shying away from this controversy and a retreat into the safer (but very relevant to now, for the discerning) past: Good Night, and Good Luck, I think, will win in a bit of an upset."
Scholar: William Deverell, professor of history and director of the Institute on California and the West at the University of Southern California; author of Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past; co-editor of Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles.
Evaluation of the film: "Some Angelenos hate this film. They insist that it slanders Los Angeles as a volcano of racial enmity. But Crash is an allegory of American racial attitudes every bit as much as it is a commentary on Los Angeles. Is it right about L.A.? It would be hard to argue that Los Angeles has not been ineffably shaped by the ugliest of racial attitudes and behaviors. It would be hard to argue that racism isn't woven into the social fabric out here. The question is whether it is inextricable, and Crash is cleverly, depressingly ambiguous on that point."
Prediction on which film will win: "I'd like to see Crash win the Academy Award, but I think Brokeback Mountain will get the nod."
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
Scholar: Susan D. Ross, associate professor at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University, where she teaches courses about the First Amendment and conducts research on the role of the media in social movements.
Evaluation of the film: "For anyone who lived in the '50s, Good Night, and Good Luck evokes the era powerfully; the details of lighting and costume, the wonderful soundtrack, the gender interactions, the cramped spaces are all impeccable. And making the movie in black and white was a master stroke because it allowed George Clooney to seamlessly weave in actual footage of McCarthy's paranoid witch hunt for Communists across America. That's the heart of this film: the careful blending of truth and fiction, the melding of David Straitharn's uncanny depiction of legendary CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow with real footage of Joseph McCarthy's demagoguery in the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. But what makes Good Night, and Good Luck great is that it reminds us just how good truly good journalism can be. It reminds us how much truly courageous journalists can accomplish. And it makes us ask ourselves whether we -- citizen and journalist alike -- have the same passion, the same deep convictions that compelled Murrow to take on the goliath that was Joseph McCarthy, and to win. Good Night, and Good Luck is worth watching again and again because it leaves us asking whether we even want journalists like Edward R. Murrow today. Do we want our news anchors to throw their power behind a single-minded campaign to unseat senators or presidents? Do we trust them to recognize evil and to correct wrongs? In a word, do we trust them? In Good Night, and Good Luck, in Murrow's life, and in contemporary America, the challenge is to distinguish fact from fiction, to decide what is accurate, what advocacy."
Prediction on which film will win: "I hope Good Night, and Good Luck wins because it's one of an all-too-rare Hollywood species: a film that's both entertaining and important."
Scholar: Alan Dowty, Kahanoff Professor of Israeli Studies at the University of Calgary; former chair of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; author of Middle East Crisis: U.S. Decision-Making in 1958, 1970 and 1973; and currently working on two books on the Arab-Israeli conflicts.
Evaluation of the film: "Steven Spielberg is a master craftsman of film. But in the case of Munich, this viewer is overwhelmed by the cavalier disregard for accuracy. "Inspired by real events" says the disclaimer. Sorry, that doesn't cut it. The verisimilitude of the film works because we take it to represent real events; for millions of viewers, this will remain the definitive version. The film follows a book -- George Jonas's Vengeance -- based on the much-discredited testimony of a single agent (for a more accurate account, see Aaron Klein's Striking Back). To anyone vaguely familiar with Israel, nothing about the five-man team of supposed Israelis strikes a familiar chord, nor is the way in which the team is organized and managed the least bit credible. Nor was there, by all accounts, the kind of agonizing portrayed in the film (not even Jonas makes that claim). Much ink has been spilled over how pro- or anti-Israel the film is; this misses the point. There is enough here to antagonize the partisans of both sides. For the sake of a good story and a self-indulgent agenda, history has been trashed."
Prediction on which film will win: "To judge from the hype, the favorite has to be
Brokeback Mountain. My personal choice would be Good Night, and Good Luck -- a film with the respect for history that Munich totally lacks."