There’s not much in the way of ambiguity surrounding the forthcoming victors in this year’s best screenplay races, which in a way is surprising, given that the stories they tell – purportedly drawn together by an overarching, left-leaning political hook – actually couldn’t be more different from one another.
In both of the category’s wings, there are stories that comment on social landscapes vast and disparate, from modern-day Kenya to 1960s rural Wyoming. To brand these films “political,” as critics from both sides of the spectrum have to no end this past year, is fair to an extent but doesn’t come close to grasping their individual thematic messages.
True, “Munich” grabs the Israeli-Palestine conflict by the throat and is directed by the most popular Jewish filmmaker in the world. “Brokeback Mountain” has scenes of almost casual frankness between two male lovers, and in many circles’ eyes subverts the most culturally untouchable of American icons. Though buried in intricate, compelling human drama, these films almost universally have underbellies exploring urgently political concerns that go straight to the heart of the American consciousness.
So, yes, in a sense, these are “political” movies. But don’t let that define them. Despite the prevailing notions of blog-mongering zealots the world over, these movies are not didactic partisan attacks but rather brash and eager depictions of a world in which these concerns exist, and will continue to exist. At their root, the screenplays nominated are political only in the sense that most cinema is inherently so, probing elements imbedded deeply in our culture, no matter how risky that particular subject might be.
Best adapted screenplay
Perhaps the least competitive of the major categories this year, the relative complacency of the best adapted screenplay nominees speaks not to a lack of quality writing this past year, but to the diverse set of films recognized. The surprise nominee is “Capote,” the spare and quietly disturbing portrait of “In Cold Blood” author Truman Capote. Based on the book by Gerald Clarke, first-time writer Dan Futterman draws the story by embracing its inescapable one-man focus and then astutely characterizing the tinge supporting parts, some of which fade as the story progresses and others who become its central tenets. But like all the film’s nominations, this is a glory nod, deserved but never really destined to be anything more.
Then we have Tony Kushner and Eric Roth’s “Munich” screenplay from a book by George Jonas, probably the weakest in the category but deserving praise if only for its clean, compact dialogue and taut construction of elaborate action sequences. It doesn’t hurt that it has two playwrights at the helm, but the general feeling that the narrative loses steam in its final third will likely close the book on whatever chances the movie might have had.
Elsewhere there are two of the year’s most thematically complex screenplays for films so intricate that they were largely ignored despite near-universal acclaim. “A History of Violence,” adapted by small-time screenwriter Josh Olson from the famous graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, is a purposefully exaggerated small-town thriller that develops into a brutal satire of a culture simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by violence. Its simple, archetypal cover is brilliant, but it will work to its detriment here, because the Academy historically prefers less stylishly pointed work. Functioning similarly is “The Constant Gardener,” screenwriter Jeffrey Caine’s interpretation of the John le Carr