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Top Oscar contenders a lesson in political history

History has always been Hollywood's favorite subject, from D.W. Griffith's silent era to this year's frontrunners for the best picture prize at tonight's Academy Awards.

More than half of the movies that have won the industry's top award either re-created historical events, as in Schindler's List, The King's Speech and Titanic, or used the familiar past as a backdrop for fiction, such as Forrest Gump and Gone With the Wind.

Despite inaccuracies that compression and creative license can cause, these films become convenient truth for future generations less inclined to study the real thing. And with that easy education comes the political views of artists making the films.

"We know about (John) Adams because we saw Paul Giamatti with his hat on, marching around on HBO," said Argo director and star Ben Affleck at last year's Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, where his best picture favorite held its world premiere.

"We learn about Lincoln because we see Daniel Day-Lewis in a (Steven) Spielberg movie, and that's going to form a lot of people's opinions. We take for granted that what we're watching must have been somehow vetted. It must, in fact, be true," he said.

In a way, this year's collection of top movies reads like required viewing for a college political science class. The politics that shape history have seldom been as central to major contenders — or as relevant — as the Washington, D.C., gridlock of Lincoln, Argo's CIA tension in Iran, and torture as a tool to find Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Politics, via revolution, seep into Les Misérables, and the pre-Civil War South and West are the backdrop for a freed slave's gunfights in Django Unchained. Even a long shot like Beasts of the Southern Wild conjures memories of Hurricane Katrina, super storm Sandy and slow government assistance.

All of which may lead tonight's Oscar telecast to a new level of Hollywood education, through those provocative acceptance speeches that the academy discourages. Nominees are routinely cautioned about the content of their on-stage remarks. Keeping it nonpartisan and entertaining is urged, but not always embraced.

The line between politics and entertainment has blurred in recent years, with partisanship enhancing the punchlines and purposes.

Many people claim to primarily get their political news from liberal-minded satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert or conservative pundits Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Celebrities such as George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn lend high profiles to various political issues simply by showing up. The Internet can generate immediate partisan ridicule, recently evidenced in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's water-sip gaffe during a televised State of the Union rebuttal speech or a photograph of President Barack Obama firing a shotgun juxtaposed with support of stricter gun controls.

Nowhere is this convergence of politics and entertainment more evident than in the two movies most likely to win the best picture Oscar tonight. Argo and Lincoln each received unprecedented presidential seals of approval.

Affleck's Argo is based upon an audacious CIA mission rescuing six U.S. embassy employees from Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis. The mission was classified until 1997, so then-President Jimmy Carter couldn't claim credit, which might have helped him get elected to a second term instead of losing to Ronald Reagan.

Carter's voice is incorporated into Argo's end credits, confirming the mission's existence, his knowledge and frustration that he couldn't publicly take some measure of credit.

Former President Bill Clinton was the president who declassified the Argo mission. However, his endorsement in the Oscar race went to Spielberg's Lincoln, calling it "extraordinary" while introducing a montage of clips at the Golden Globes awards show in January. Clinton's description of Abraham Lincoln's struggle to end slavery as "forged in a cauldron of both principle and compromise" was a transparent reference to recent gridlock between the White House and Congress.

When former leaders of the free world are comfortable using Hollywood's version of history to publicly express political views, nothing the academy does will prevent filmmakers tonight from doing the same.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.

Top Oscar contenders a lesson in political history 02/20/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 12:05pm]

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