Not so long ago, the documentary feature category was among the snooziest at the Oscars, the target of jokes that said you couldn’t lose by making a film about the Holocaust. That backward-looking pattern began to morph when Michael Moore won the 2002 award with “Bowling for Columbine,” and exploded with last year’s win for Al Gore’s one-man show, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Odd though it sounds, Michael Moore and Al Gore have made the image of documentaries – O.K., maybe not sexy, but hot.
This year all five nominees are politically charged, four are about war, and amazingly, only one feels like homework. Spurred by global conflict and by technology that allows filmmakers to turn out movies in months rather than years, these works carry urgent messages. With their pointed arguments, though, this year’s nominees also raise an inescapable question: Can they have any real political impact?
They try in extremely varied ways. Mr. Moore’s “Sicko” is wildly comic while tearing apart the country’s health care system. Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American abuses of prisoners in the war on terror, is eloquent.
And even the less artistic films vividly present the faces and voices of people who have witnessed some of today’s most anguishing conflicts. In Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s moving “War/Dance,” those faces and voices belong to Ugandan children who enter a music competition, even though their lives have been shattered by decades of civil war. Charles Ferguson’s gripping “No End in Sight” relies on former Bush administration officials to make the case that in its earliest stages the American military operation in Iraq was catastrophically mismanaged. Even Richard E. Robbins’s straightforward “Operation Homecoming” has enlightening moments as it presents writing by American soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. (All the films are available: “Taxi” and “War/Dance” in theaters, and the rest on DVD.)
Still, as Mr. Gibney said in a telephone interview, “I don’t think Dick Cheney is going to watch this film and say, ‘My God, I’ve been wrong!’ ” Mr. Gibney, who also directed the highly praised “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and was an executive producer of “No End in Sight,” added, “I think of these films as agents provocateurs that provoke people to think more deeply about the topics.”
“Taxi to the Dark Side” is not a polemic, though. It feels like the real-life version of “Rendition,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays a woman whose husband is suspected of terrorism and tortured with the sanction of the C.I.A. This documentary entices viewers into its narrative, about a taxi driver named Dilawar who was taken to Bagram prison in Afghanistan on suspicion of terrorism, beaten by his American captors even after they had reason to believe he was innocent, and died there. Gracefully weaving together interviews (some with the soldiers convicted of the beating), fresh images and official photographs, it suggests why so many politically themed fiction films, like “Rendition,” have failed. Next to this actual story, the cranked-up drama of most fiction is exposed for what it is: fake.
The harsh numerical fact, though, is that a box office flop like “Rendition,” which made just under $10 million and played in 2,250 theaters, will reach more people than most successful documentaries.