How did ‘Man on Wire’ become the favorite in a field of superior documentary features?

Posted by · 10:46 am · February 11th, 2009

Man on WireIt often seems that when there isn’t an obvious, populist pick in the Academy’s documentary feature category (such as “Bowling for Columbine,” “March of the Penguins” or “An Inconvenient Truth”), the field is rife for an upset.  Last year a number of awards watchers were sure that either “No End in Sight” or “Sicko” would walk away the winner, while maybe five of us new the power of “Taxi to the Dark Side” would prevail.  “Born Into Brothels” caught a few by surprise in a year that a great many thought would see “Super Size Me” take the gold.

“Murder on a Sunday Morning” over “Children Underground,” “One Day in September” over “Buena Vista Social Club,” it seems there is always something of a surprise waiting to happen here, and I think it’s because the groupthink always takes such a vigorous hold in a category with little precursor clues as to what the actual film industry thinks of the field.

This year, it’s a foregone conclusion that the critically acclaimed “Man on Wire” will win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  The film has nearly swept the circuit.  Only “Trouble the Water” (also nominated) and Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” have popped up with this critics organization or that.  But I submit that, not only is “Man on Wire” quite vulnerable, but it may be the least likely of the nominated docs to win the Oscar in a little less than two weeks’ time.

Of course, that’s quite the controversial statement.  And perhaps I’m dead wrong.  But I don’t make it carelessly.  Having finally viewed all of the nominees, I can’t deny how impactful each of the other contenders is.  Furthermore, James Marsh’s film is largely composed of talking head interviews and pre-existing footage, not to mention dubious reenactments.  Each of the other contenders, meanwhile, are the result of original filmmaking.

Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” for instance, is a gorgeous film, the exceptional effort apparent on every frame.  It is also the legendary helmer’s first ever Oscar nomination, if you can believe it.  It’s a brilliant view of Antarctica that we’ve most certainly never seen, both because of Herzog’s trademark narrative witticisms and his great respect for those who choose to work in that environment.

Ellen Kuras’s “The Betrayal,” meanwhile, is arguably the closest thing to a piece of visual art of all the nominees.  A measured, decades-in-the-making study of a Laotian immigrant and his family, the film’s impressionistic approach blurs the line between past and present despite its subjects’ aging before our eyes through consistent accounts of the illegal U.S. invasion of Laos during the Veitnam conflict.  It is a visual essay of a sort, one that in any other year might be a prime candidate for the win.

Even the simplicity of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s “The Garden” has more immediacy than Marsh’s film, and its local flavor might have more appeal than we expect.  Activist appearances by Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah and Danny Glover hardly push it to the periphery of fringe, independent filmmaking.

Speaking of Glover, his name pops up as an executive producer on “Trouble the Water,” far and away (for my money) the best film of the lot and one I’m ashamed I never got around to last year.  Here is a film that combines harrowing first-person coverage of a national disaster with properly accusatory looks at the federal process that followed, all the while feeling fresh and insightful despite the fact that we’ve quite frankly heard it all before.  In Kim and Scott Roberts, filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin found a goldmine of perspective that maintains an authenticity despite, perhaps, an expectation of hyperbole.  Check out Kim Voynar’s recent interview with the directors for an example of how resonant the film remains, over a year after its Sundance debut.

I have a lot of respect for “Man on Wire.”  I think it’s blend of energetic interviews with Philippe Petit and stock footage of his daring high-wire act is at times quite beautiful.  The score is magistrial, a lullaby throughout.  Yet overall, I can’t imagine the film would have the same emotional resonance if it weren’t a sort of ghost story, given the fate of the twin towers.  And I can’t help but marvel at the innovation of the other contenders more so than the piecing together of older material and manifestation of scenes to push “Wire”‘s story forward.

And I doubt I’m the only one.  I don’t have any insight into the voting committee of this year’s documentary contenders.  I haven’t made any calls to find out who’s voting for what.  So this is purely a speculative piece.  But we must keep in mind that, while most of the other categories can allow for a voter to choose without having seen this or that contender (thereby allowing the groupthink to sway opinion in some instances), members of the Academy who wish to vote in the documentary field must watch each of the nominees in order to have a say.  And when you stack up the competition, “Man on Wire” seems a bit flat.

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24 responses so far

  • 1 2-11-2009 at 10:49 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Agreed. I do like “Man on Wire” a great deal, but I have no idea why it’s enjoyed such an unopposed run this awards season, given the strength of the competition.

    I’ve been thinking “Trouble the Water” will prevail for some time now. Isn’t this one of the categories where voters have to view all the nominees? I think that helps it a lot.

  • 2 2-11-2009 at 10:55 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yes it is:

    “But we must keep in mind that, while most of the other categories can allow for a voter to choose without having seen this or that contender (thereby allowing the groupthink to sway opinion in some instances), members of the Academy who wish to vote in the documentary field must watch each of the nominees in order to have a say. And when you stack up the competition, “Man on Wire” seems a bit flat.”

    You give yourself away, Guy. ;)

  • 3 2-11-2009 at 11:02 am

    Brian Kinsley said...

    I wish Winnipeg could win this.

    I really think Herzog could take this. Just the idea of giving him microphone time is squeal worthy.

  • 4 2-11-2009 at 11:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oops, I read that too quickly! We’re totally on the same page, then.

  • 5 2-11-2009 at 11:56 am

    Denny said...

    Because Man on Wire is the best documentary this year, nominated or not nominated…

    But I think that the beautiful and poetic reflections on life, passion, and art are also helping, not to mention it being about the Twin Towers and taking us back to an easier time that almost seems like a dream at this point.

  • 6 2-11-2009 at 12:15 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    I think you’re on to something, Kris. Last year, most of the pundits were predicting No End In Sight to win for its subject matter or SiCKO for Michael Moore. Taxi to the Dark Side, on the other hand, was far more “cinematic” and took the top prize.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens again.

  • 7 2-11-2009 at 12:51 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I guess I’m on a different page than you are.

    For me “Man on Wire” was simply one of the five best films of 2008, documentary or otherwise. Beautiful, life-affirming, transcendent, made with such precision and fine-tuned craftsmanship, designed with an artistic eye for humanity’s greatest passions and dreams, flawlessly edited and paced… it’s a fluid masterwork that is consistently celebratory and almost ethereal, melancholic. It moved me in a very profound way.

  • 8 2-11-2009 at 1:01 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I haven’t seen all the nominees but (aside from Herzog) I can’t imagine others being as entertaining as Man On Wire. Aside from it being a thriller too.

  • 9 2-11-2009 at 1:48 pm

    Joe Leydon said...

    I think you raise a valid point about the use of “dubious re-enactments.” Is that what, rightly or wrongly, kept “Thin Blue Line” from even being nominated more than a decade ago?

  • 10 2-11-2009 at 2:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Well, it seems the Academy, for the longest time, had a weird prejudice against Morris. Perhaps one that’s still alive, considering he was ignored for “Standard Operating Procedure” this year, which may have suffered from being a bit too reminiscent of “Taxi to the Dark Side.”

  • 11 2-11-2009 at 5:06 pm

    Eric said...

    No doubt Man on Wire is flawed, too slick and manipulative (the liberal use of preexisting Erik Satie and Michael Nyman music is cheating), though I think it’s unfair to say that it’s just a patchwork of talking heads and archive material, especially given that recent winners in this category legitimately were: an old pol giving life lessons (Fog of War), a Nova-style nature film (Penguins) and a literal PowerPoint presentation (Inconvenient Truth). Man on Wire is more daring than those because of its provocative last ten minutes (SPOILER) in which Marsh suggests Petit as a sad Icarus figure, a selfish asshole who maybe in the end lost more than he gained from the stunt. Those last minutes are heavy with a somber feeling of loss, of what exactly it’s uncertain, though surely we can’t help but react to grandiose shots of the Twin Towers, which themselves ultimately didn’t make it. Add to that the poignant last shots of him tight-roping: just him and the wire, all alone in the world. This is more challenging and artistic than the film is even obliged to be, and distinguished from some cut and paste PBS job. Culminatively it doesn’t, in my opinion, “feel a bit flat” compared to the other three nominees I’ve seen.

  • 12 2-11-2009 at 5:27 pm

    jennybee said...

    I rather hope you are right, Kris. I’m no fan of Man on Wire–count me among the rare few who are not. For me, it was arrogant, overhyped, poorly paced, annoying and contained nothing approaching transcendence; Petit’s feat never became more than a footnote in history for me, a curiosity diminished and overshadowed by the savagery that would later occur there. I feel sad that I did not have the captivating experience everyone else seems to have had with it either of the two times I watched it. It has been terribly frustrating, though, to watch it suck all the air out of the doc race in ceremony after ceremony. I appreciate that there may be greatness in Man in Wire that for whatever reason I am not getting, but I would love to see some of these other beautiful, well-made films gain traction.

    I don’t think Herzog’s film has a shot, though it was one of my favorites this year. Sans Man on Wire, my money would be on Trouble the Water, with The Garden as a dark horse.

  • 13 2-11-2009 at 7:21 pm

    Glenn said...

    Joe, “The Thin Blue Line” was (I think) deemed ineligible because, as you alluded too, of too much re-enactments. Why then did they also ignore “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” though is a tougher question.

    My favourite docos of 2008 were “Up the Yangtze”, “Not Quite Hollywood”, “Celebrity: Domonick Dunne””, “Man on Wire” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” with “My Winnipeg”, “Beyond Our Ken” and “Night” proving worthy contenders. I actually made an effort to see more docos last year and I hope to keep it up.

  • 14 2-11-2009 at 9:45 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    For me, the year’s best was “Dear Zachary.” Second year in a row I’ve had a doc in my top 10 (I can’t see any argument against Tony Kaye’s “Lake of Fire” being in the top tier of all time last year).

  • 15 2-12-2009 at 4:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, last year’s “Lake of Fire” snub was ludicrous.

    Comfortably 2008’s best doc, for me, was Terence Davies’ gorgeous “Of Time and the City.” Not sure if it ever made it to the States, though.