Netflix dives for Oscar gold with ‘Mission Blue’ documentary

Last year, Netflix made its first play for Oscar when it acquired the documentary “The Square,” an eventual nominee for Best Documentary Feature. That didn’t pan out – “20 Feet from Stardom” took the prize – but the online streaming service could well return to the race with “Mission Blue,” whose environmental activism is likely to be right up the academy’s alley.

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The film follows Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist who has broken ground for female scientists throughout her career. After falling in love with the ocean as a child, she grew up to watch pollution and overfishing by humans decimate its biodiversity.

The film is directed by Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens. Nixon previously earned an Oscar bid in 1989 for Best Live-Action Short for “Amazon Diary,” and Stevens won as a producer of the feature documentary “The Cove” in 2009. The success of “The Cove” bodes well for “Mission Blue,” which is in the same wheelhouse; “The Cove” also dealt with aquatic activism, specifically the outrage against the killing of dolphins in Japan.

“Mission” also resembles another recent Oscar-champ, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which Al Gore discussed a related environmental catastrophe: climate change. The styles of the two films are quite different – “Truth” was based predominantly around the world’s most famous Power Point presentation, while “Mission” features talking heads and first-hand nature footage – but they have in common their combination of the personal and the political.

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“Truth” contextualized Gore’s crusade with personal details of his life, and “Mission Blue” does the same for Earle, exploring her life, her marriages, and the challenges of being a woman in a predominantly male profession while she promotes awareness about the dangers of how we exploit our natural resources.

Another nature film won Best Documentary in 2005 – “March of the Penguins” – while several others about environmental issues have been nominated, including “If a Tree Falls” (2011), “Gasland” (2010), “Encounters at the End of the World” (2008), and “Winged Migration” (2002).

Other docs with activist-appeal have prevailed, including the analysis of the financial crisis “Inside Job” (2010), the torture-themed expose “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), and Michael Moore‘s call for gun-control, “Bowling for Columbine” (2002).

But the same rules may not apply in Oscar’s Documentary Feature race anymore. In 2012, the academy opened up voting to all members who attested to viewing all the nominees; previously, voters had to attend special screenings. The resulting winners in the last two contests were both feel-good music films: “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) and the aforementioned “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013), which beat comparative bummers like “The Gatekeepers,” “How to Survive a Plague,” “The Act of Killing,” and “Dirty Wars.”

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Is this the start of a new voting trend? If so, is a movie about the depletion of the oceans too heavy to win over the entire academy membership? Or can intense activism stories make a comeback at the Oscars?

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