Foryears now, the television audience for the Oscars has been in decline. In 2023, the Academy’s big night had 18.7 million viewers; in 1998, the Titanic year, it was 57 million. This is getting to be like the last stages in musical chairs. Folklore says the Academy hires good-looking suits and gowns to fill the theatre seats when stars and quasars retreat to the bar or take meetings. Why can’t we have pretty virtuals to take our places in the living room?

You’re smiling; you’re wincing; but still a last gasp in you recalls the pleasure you once took in finding out who wins. Envelope-itis. Are we kidding? After four months of the ‘awards season’, reaching from the tarnished Golden Globes to the diligent film critics’ circles in provincial cities (there are a hundred schemes of congratulation), there’s so little doubt left. Best supporting actress, Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers; best supporting actor, Robert Downey Jr in Oppenheimer; best actress, Emma Stone in Poor Things; best actor, Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers; best director, Christopher Nolan for Oppenheimer. Best Picture? The word was out before Christmas, it will be Oppenheimer.

There’s your big six. Now get a life.

When he wins (with his wife and producer Emma Thomas at his side), the engagingly modest Nolan will roll out the speech he knows by heart, about the Bomb as the great adventure and turning point of modern times, the exhilarating teamwork that gave us the big bang, and so on. The same attitude gave us ‘Oppie’ as the charismatic team leader, the dazed guy in a fedora, impresario of so much intense mathematical theory, the auteur that movie culture longs to believe in.

All this is fair enough in the age of history as a red carpet promotion. But Nolan’s film and Cillian Murphy’s dreamy vagueness in the lead miss out on the Oppie who was a hustler on a quest for fame, so well aware of the hideous impact of his child, the Bomb, that he had a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita – ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ – up his sleeve for the Trinity test, then later took up a career as a soulful prophet who felt bad about what he had done.

But Nolan has never had enough feeling for history. In Dunkirk, he was in love with the bare beaches and the pluck of small boats coming to the rescue. But his movie never bothered to wonder why the German attack did not advance on the hard sands and drive Tommy into the Channel. For a movie man, commanding a budget of more than $100 million, it would have been inadvisable to put the adventure to that test of history. So forget about what was going on in the opposing commands, neither of which quite wished to behave as if they were in a final crisis: let Dunkirk stand as the emblem of valiant British isolation.

There is a different movie to be made about Oppenheimer. It would present him as an opportunist and a celebrity, a leader who did not understand the mathematics that gave the Bomb a chance. If you are reluctant to believe the skipper was in the dark, I recommend a novel from last year, The Maniac, by Benjamín Labatut (Pushkin, £20), which is an astonishing scenario of the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann. He was a helpless genius, who laid down principles that were vital in the development of computers, game theory and our understanding of evolution (he was a father to fathers), and in the decision at Los Alamos to use implosion for the Bomb. I don’t think Oppie understood that strategic shift: he didn’t have to, he was simply eager to try anything that might work. Labatut makes it clear that there is a rare heady torment in being right when everyone else is wrong. That could even be the premise for an endearing comedy in which a Hungarian screwball intuits the deep truth but has no grasp of how to be a team player: Bringing Up the Bomb?

Von Neumann doesn’t appear in Oppenheimer. Or does he? The muddle of the film leaves a little room for doubt. He may be one of the entourage in a scene or two, without lines or a credit. But there is a larger omission in the movie. An essay in the New York Times in January reminded us that the Manhattan Project was a $2 billion adventure hidden from Congress. The Bomb was smuggled through and its fathers weren’t just the Hungarian geniuses but Americans like FDR, the secretary of war Henry Stimson and General Leslie Groves, who is always presented in the legend as a head-scratching by-the-book manager (played in the movie by Matt Damon). In the battle against tyranny the Bomb was harbinger of all the secret projects to come in the new American imperium.

Am I taking this too seriously? Doesn’t a movie have the right to be spectacular and fun? Don’t we know we’re going to get a biblical desert and blinding light? Aren’t those things cinematic, even if Nolan’s big effect doesn’t match the verbal accounts of some who were there on that July morning? Or can a case be made that the ‘adventure’ of the Bomb is distracting, and built on deceits, like the idea we were in a race with the Nazis to build the Bomb? Of course the Bomb was also a message to future enemies and a way to forestall the loss of American lives in any invasion of Japan. But the building of it depended on that $2 billion and the insistence by the geniuses that if it could be done then it would be – rather like the way the making of movies relies on the expenditure of vast amounts of money in service of the maniacal obsession of auteurs.

Oppenheimer will win because it is big, long, slow, grave and expensive, with some vivid acting (Downey Jr really is brilliant, so full of manipulative intelligence that he might have played Oppie himself). But don’t we deserve a better approximation to the historical truth? A similar complaint can be levelled at the endless and wrongheaded Killers of the Flower Moon, the ultimate proof that Martin Scorsese is given such licence to do anything that it no longer matters what he does. His once unique urgency has become a red carpet of solemnity.

So it seems a wilful blindness to decide that Oppenheimer is Best Picture when that verdict means passing on several more coherent films – for me, that includes Poor Things, The Zone of Interest and Past Lives, all of which are nominated, but none of which feels American. The crack in the promise of the Academy Awards is that American pictures don’t cut it any more. ‘Hollywood’ (if you are prepared to believe that kingdom still exists) doesn’t know how to deliver a pointed universality that can upset us. That was seldom what the big studios set out to do, but enough essential American movies have produced controversy, discomfort and dismay: The Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives, Sunset Boulevard, Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, Blue Velvet … and now Poor Things, which has stirred delight and contempt, and proved that cinema can still put us in a ferment. Can you imagine an Oppenheimer that produced such mixed feelings? Yet the full story of the Bomb would be an opportunity for a rueful and barbed retrospective – to say nothing of what it might say about where we are now and how the US tries to run its show.

It may be perverse to harp on the decline of America in a year when Oppenheimer and Barbie seemed to announce the renewal of the box office. Barbie has earned close to $1.5 billion and it is pompous of the Academy not to concede that it was swept away last summer when theatres were packed with young people in pink talking back to the fun as if at a karaoke event. In truth, that ghost of old cinema as a mass medium was a rite of nostalgia without much promise of a trend. But fondness for that ghost has persuaded many that Barbie has been ‘snubbed’: it has no nominations for Greta Gerwig as director or Margot Robbie as actress. There is some unfairness in those omissions, but the Academy needn’t swallow the bromide that it must please everyone. The Oscars have a lively record for unkindness or error: there was no big six award for Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Stanley Kubrick, Garbo, Dietrich, Groucho or Fred Astaire. But persistent neglect only makes us love Margot Robbie the more. As in so many of her films, her Barbie is a light bulb that shines out of the medium. The casual way she mixes seeming radiant, being good-natured and putting picture projects together is unrivalled. It leaves the statuettes looking hunched and shabby.

Of course I count as elderly, and with each passing year I have to further set aside my memories of the history of Oscar. But there are famous snubs, and then there are ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’ I’m going to name a film that would be in my top ten this year but you may not know – and it is truly American, even if its version of Manhattan was largely filmed in Serbia. I’m thinking of Fair Play. To qualify for Oscar consideration a picture must open for a week in Los Angeles. I’m not sure if Fair Play met that quaint test. Netflix say they opened it, but I have never met anyone who saw it on a big screen. It is a first feature film, written and directed by Chloe Domont, about a man and a woman who work for the same hedge fund. They are lovers but it is the protocol of their company that they mustn’t let their relationship be known. That deceit functions until she gets a promotion that he wanted for himself. The love affair then breaks down. This is very uncomfortable, since we have grown to like the couple, played by Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor. They are so good they hurt – I would nominate both, along with the film and the director. Whenever my wife and I have watched it, we get into fierce discussions – close to rows. It’s exciting to find an unheralded film being so provocative.

Such ships are easily lost at sea, especially when launched without a carpet of any colour. I’m sure there are other movies I would have loved if I’d known about them. A few years ago, there was a film directed by Julia Hart called I’m Your Woman in which Rachel Brosnahan plays a woman married to a gangster who has been disappeared. But he had given her an acquired baby as a going away present – like a new dress. This wondrous noir film had a very limited theatrical release before it was put in aspic on Amazon Prime. It was well reviewed (as was Fair Play), but it is already slipping into obscurity. I am talking about two movies, made for very little, that in my opinion are more interesting than Maestro or Napoleon.

It’s in the nature of Oscar night now that it has to be offensive or reckless to get attention. A key step in that development came several years ago when Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes and poured scorn on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (today that vitriol would be better directed at the home press, whose hacks obsess over awards as a way of preserving their jobs). I don’t believe there was any set-up behind the furore of 2022, but the weird spat between Will Smith and Chris Rock was a response to red carpet mania – sooner or later some kind of violence was going to be committed there. A few years ago we would have taken it for granted that an altercation like that was real. But today we are more wary over public show. With reason. It was in awards season that Christopher Wray, director of the FBI (still, just, a big studio), warned Congress that forces in China were ready to unleash havoc in America with fake video material that few ordinary viewers could distinguish from the real thing. At the same time, false footage hit social media in which Taylor Swift was depicted in pornographic situations.

To which we might respond: ‘Yes, of course, we should have guessed.’ The cinema grew up as a medium that recorded life and made stories out of it. Today we must acknowledge the way that trick has compromised our critical intelligence. Nature has become a back projection. In 2023 at the Oscars, the famed red carpet was changed to a champagne colour. The red is just melodrama.

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