In retrospect, once all the Oscar-season fireworks are over, it's often possible to view the eventual winner as an exemplar of the prevailing zeitgeist. Chicago (2002) seemed to ride a growing wave of cynicism about the interplay between celebrity, the media and the justice system.
Crash (2005) might not have spoken to the national consciousness, but it certainly reflected a Los Angeles uneasiness -- as well as its Westside liberal guilt -- with festering racial and ethnic tensions.
This year, that zeitgeist certainly seems troubled: The Iraq War continues; consumer confidence is sinking in the face of the declining home market and the threat of a recession; and on the Hollywood home front, the writers strike has interrupted the TV season and has begun to disrupt film production.
With the Oscar race wide open, the grim tidings would seem to favor the many darker films jostling for attention, like the despairing No Country for Old Men.
On the other hand, the zeitgeist, always an amorphous concept, can cut both ways. Bad times can send moviegoers -- and Academy members -- looking for an upbeat antidote. Amid the malaise of the 1970s, voters chose to celebrate the flag-waving Rocky in 1977 over the more troubling All the President's Men and Taxi Driver.
This year, if voters do grow weary of all the downbeat movies heading their way, one beneficiary could be the upcoming film version of Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner, which DreamWorks and Paramount Classics will usher into limited release December 14. For unlike so many of this season's crop of films, Kite, though it hardly turns a blind eye to our troubled times, manages to reach a much more hopeful resolution.
Hosseini's tale, adapted for the screen by writer David Benioff and director Marc Forster, is set in Afghanistan -- beginning before the Russian invasion in 1979 and, after an interlude in California, returning to Kabul once the Taliban imposed its rule in the late '90s. In the eyes of some, it already has been lumped into this season's parade of movies set in whole or in part in the Mideast -- The Kingdom, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah -- most of which have fought an uphill battle at the box office.
But unlike those films, Kite doesn't take an American-centric view of the region. (For that, moviegoers can turn to Charlie Wilson's War.) And while Kite uses the political turmoil in Afghanistan as a backdrop, its real concern is how one man redeems himself for his childhood betrayal of a friend. Infused with the culture it describes, the film explores how codes of honor can both bind a community together and, when perverted, tear it apart.
While the screen version inevitably loses some of the detail that allowed readers of the novel to understand an Afghanistan so different from the brief glimpses on the nightly news, Benioff has done a masterful job of adaptation. Additionally, Forster and casting director Kate Dowd have populated the film with ethnic actors -- including several young Afghan boys, nonactors -- who lend it authenticity.
Right now, given the competition, Kite isn't assured a best picture nomination. In fact, that quest just got a little bit harder because the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has relegated the movie -- much of which is spoken in the Afghan language of Dari -- to its foreign-language category, which means it won't be in the running for best drama at the Globes.
But Kite shouldn't be discounted as a genuine Oscar contender. At heart, it offers a healing vision that is in short supply this Oscar season.