- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

Al Gore’s transformation from ex-vice president to Oscar winner is coming closer to reality.

Mr. Gore’s Power Point-presentation-turned-documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” already has scooped up three “best of” nods in this early awards season and figures to pick up a few more before next year’s Oscar ceremony starts.

Critics oozed affection for the film, which marshals evidence that global warming could devastate the planet unless something is done, and soon. Even Mr. Gore’s detractors admit it’s an engaging affair, showing Mr. Gore’s rarely seen avuncular side.

The National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Washington Area Film Critics Association all chose “Truth” as best documentary of 2006.

Really? What about “Deliver Us From Evil,” “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos,” “Jesus Camp” and “Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story,” to name a few?

This year has seen another bumper crop of terrific documentaries, and choosing “Truth” for what are — let’s face it — political reasons would be a shame.

What’s more compelling to watch, a disgraced priest revealing how he tricked families into trusting him with their children or Mr. Gore flicking from one graph to another to cement his argument?

Sky Sitney, director of programming for the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs program, says celebrity may trump politics in the minds of some voters.

“If it’s not Al Gore, I don’t think we’d be seeing it on all these lists,” Miss Sitney says of “Truth.” “We like our documentaries with a star [in them].”

While saluting “Truth” for spotlighting a critical issue, Miss Sitney says it lacks the character arcs and narrative structure that award-winning documentaries often feature.

Catherine Wyler, a film producer and artistic director of Rochester, N.Y.’s High Falls Film Festival, says it’s par for the course to see less worthy films emerge victorious on Oscar night.

“The Oscars has always been a popularity contest,” says Miss Wyler, daughter of famed film director William Wyler (“Ben Hur”). “The Academy has been very smart in figuring out how to get them the global importance they now have.”

A bit of good timing certainly hasn’t hurt Mr. Gore’s chances.

“The environmental cause is front and center now, and it’s of interest to people across the political spectrum,” Miss Wyler says.

In a lesser year, “Truth” might deserve an Oscar.

However, a “Truth” victory against this year’s formidable field suggests the need for an Oscar tuneup. Maybe the time has come to subdivide the documentary category into advocacy and narrative branches.

Does it make any sense to have “Truth” compete with, say, “My Country, My Country?” The former is — like it or loathe it — a polemic, while the latter is a verite journey through postwar Baghdad that’s more open-minded than your typical network news segment.

Print journalism clearly distinguishes (or at least tries to) between news and opinion — why shouldn’t nonfiction film?

Such a system wouldn’t turn its back on the genre’s progressive muckraking tradition, embodied by documentaries from “Harvest of Shame” (1960) to “Super Size Me” (2004). In fact, films would duel in a best-advocacy-documentary category with little competition from the ideological right, which would please much of Hollywood.

Chevy Chase filmmaker Michael Pack (2002’s “Rediscovering George Washington”) says a decade ago people were talking about eliminating the best-documentary category in the Oscars.

“Now, they need more than one [category],” Mr. Pack says. “There’s a general feeling that now, more than ever, this is a renaissance for documentary films … It’s a positive cultural trend.”

The Oscar votes haven’t been cast yet, and some recent headlines raise new questions about the kind of doctrinaire environmentalism espoused by “Truth.”

Citing improved data, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a new study revising downward its estimate of the human contribution to global warming by 25 percent.

That inconvenient truth could be enough to give some worthier documentaries at least a fighting chance at an Oscar this February.

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