It’s been a big year for big stories from, and about, Hollywood.
Off-screen, the most notable yarn was about the comedy “The Interview,” which was no laughing matter to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, or to Sony and State Department leaders who witnessed an Internet security lapse become an international incident. Expect to hear quite a few quips — maybe provoking more laughs than the poorly reviewed movie did — about the whole episode during Sunday evening’s Academy Awards.
On-screen, there were big stories about big events and important individuals, too. Four of them — “American Sniper,” “Selma,” “The Imitation Game,” and “The Theory of Everything” — are among eight nominees for Best Picture. Each of them depicted history, and created controversy in doing so.
Of course, Hollywood histories have always been subjective, and thus subject to scrutiny. But this year’s batch comes in a technological, media and political environment keen on sleuthing the truth and then reporting any discrepancies in order to shape the debate over the film, if not the issue or event it explores.
This dynamic is not limited to cinema. Celebrities like Brian Williams, Bill Cosby and John Walsh, Montana’s former senator who plagiarized his dissertation, were just a few who recently had their careers careen out of control after losing the public’s trust.
Movies usually get more artistic license due to their creative nature. Yet in an effort to set the record straight, or even to discredit them, some films are held to a less flexible standard. For-the-record results come from professors and the public alike, in academic journals and on social media. And increasingly from major media organizations: In advance of the Academy Awards, the Washington Post ran a fact-check feature on the four historically focused contenders, and just as with most politicians who are the usual subjects of such examinations, each of the films had “factual issues.”
The Post noted timeline discrepancies in “The Theory of Everything,” and mischaracterization of motivations and personality traits, among other issues, in “The Imitation Game.”
And it wasn’t just Washington’s newspaper, but some Beltway politicians themselves who dove directly into the debate over whether “Selma” unfairly characterized President Lyndon Johnson’s stance on civil rights. Meanwhile, “American Sniper” has become a sociopolitical Rorschach test, just like the polarized post-9/11 era it takes place in.
Fictionalized films, of course, don’t stir those types of debates. Ironically, one movie that doesn’t claim to be a “true story” seems more real, and relatable, than this year’s fact-based films. And “Boyhood” might make some history itself Sunday night if it follows up its Golden Globe Award with an Oscar.
“Boyhood” is a simple story created by a complex process. Director Richard Linklater chronicled the coming-of-age story of Mason (an excellent Eller Coltrane) from age 6 to 18. But instead of using different-aged actors, “Boyhood” broke convention by being filmed over a 12-year period. Moviegoers see Mason grow up (and his parents age) in real time.
Mason’s not at the center of a social struggle as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is in “Selma.” He’s not caught up in a war like Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” or Chris Kyle in “American Sniper.” He’s doesn’t face anything like the life crisis Stephen Hawking endures in the biopic “The Theory of Everything.” But Mason’s life, like ours, doesn’t lack for drama, comedy, suspense and romance. And because it’s more ordinary, it feels more authentic, even though it’s fiction.
Indeed, at times, “Boyhood” can seem more like a novel than a movie, with small moments creating a fuller portrait than most motion pictures. Like life, not all of the moments are exciting. Many are mundane, including the opening shot of 6-year-old Mason lying in the grass, staring at the sky, which has become the film’s signature image.
These quiet moments, and “Boyhood’s” subtle conversations, act as an antidote to our noisy society. To be sure, there are also some loud moments, including innocuous sibling spats, as well as more malevolent domestic disputes. That’s because “Boyhood” doesn’t idealize, but depicts family life amid a fluid and even turbulent social environment. It reflects society with explorations of issues like divorce, domestic abuse and addiction. In other words, Mason and his parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who each received a deserved Best Supporting Actor/Actress nomination) aren’t perfect.
But “Boyhood” nearly is. It’s sweet, but not treacly. It’s deeply affecting, and effective, especially in how it makes moviegoers reflect not just on the lives of Mason and his family, but on their own lives and families.
To be sure, small, personal stories don’t have the historical heft of King, Kyle, Turing and Hawking, all of whom are worthy of being subjects of Oscar-nominated films. Watching Mason grow up in “Boyhood” isn’t the grand sweep of history. Somehow, it’s more profound than that.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.