When President Barack Obama won re-election last week, more than one tweet popped up saying something along the lines of "Well, that makes 'Lincoln' the Best Picture front-runner now." You could certainly make that argument for Steven Spielberg's film. It had plenty of adoring reviews, a titanic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and a enormously healthy box office-average in limited release, taking around $75,000 on each of its eleven screens.
And we'd certainly agree that, right now at least, "Lincoln" is the film with its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Much of the film is about Lincoln's efforts to reunite a hopelessly divided country, and while America hasn't been plunged into civil war, the division between the two sides of the political coin is as pronounced as it's ever been in the modern era. With Obama using his acceptance speech to place further emphasis on bipartisanship, there's a tangible link with events of Spielberg's film. And Lincoln's own battle to pass a difficult piece of legislation mirrors Obama's fight to keep America from going over "the fiscal cliff," which is likely to dominate the news cycle through to Oscar night.
"Lincoln" isn't the only film with the potential to tie in to what's going on in the world around it. "Argo" found accidental resonance with the present day due to its release only a few weeks after the deaths at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi. Obama's re-election arguably benefits "Zero Dark Thirty," about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, as much as it does "Lincoln." And Gus Van Sant's "The Promised Land" is said to revolve around the controversial issue of fracking. But does it make any of them more likely to win Best Picture in a competitive field? How important is a film capturing the cultural zeitgeist, or mirroring current events, when it comes to winning Academy votes?
When you look at the recent history, there are certainly films that could be seen as having benefited from being about subject matter that was on the tip of everyone's tongues. Many attributed the victory of "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009 to the "Obama effect," a new optimism and embrace of multiculturalism hanging in the air. "Million Dollar Baby" won Best Picture just as the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case started brewing up again. "The Hurt Locker" could have been aided by the beginning of withdrawal of troops from Iraq earlier that year.
But one could point to as many examples that point to the opposite. Months after 9/11, "A Beautiful Mind," a film with no connection whatsoever to the events of that day, took the top prize. A year later, with the Iraq war about to get underway, the musical "Chicago," about as escapist a film as you could ask for, picked up Best Picture. The recession has barely figured into the Oscar nominated films since it happened in 2008, and while 'The Social Network" was acclaimed as a generation-defining picture for the Web 2.0 age, it lost out to period piece "The King's Speech." Hell, of last year's crop, barely any of the nine nominees had any connection to the world we live in in 2012, least of all nostalgic victor "The Artist."
And politics aside, even dominating the cultural zeitgeist is no guarantee of victory. "Avatar" was a once-in-a-generation box office phenomenon, and yet lost out to a film made for a fraction of the budget, "The Hurt Locker." And that duel is, ultimately, an indicator of part of what matters much more — the narrative of the season. That year, the narrative was of David vs. Goliath, made all the more potent by the fact that the directors of each, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, were once married. Academy members are, in various forms, storytellers, and they want the story of that year's Oscar race to have the right ending.
So yes, the narrative can come into play — voters felt that "Slumdog Millionaire" was the film of the moment, and that's why Oscar publicists are keen to push those connections to current events. But also, "Slumdog Millionaire" faced a weak field, and felt like the only obvious winner. And ultimately, any connection to the zeitgeist is less important than the simple question of which movie Oscar voters liked the most. It might be "Lincoln." It might be "Zero Dark Thirty." Or it might be "Life Of Pi" or "Les Miserables." Tying into the wider world can help push a film over the edge, but it can't stop a juggernaut.