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Oscar Loves Uncle Sam

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Bradley Cooper is nominated for his portrayal of an FBI agent in American Hustle. Bradley Cooper is nominated for his portrayal of an FBI agent in American Hustle. Sony - Columbia Pictures

Federal employees are all over film. Often, they pop up as military service members in critically-acclaimed movies like Patton, The Hurt Locker or Saving Private Ryan. Federal law enforcement is omnipresent. Most movies on organized crime feature a an Elliott Ness type, and those films focused on the narcotics trade, like Traffic or Scarface, almost always involve the Drug Enforcement Administration. Government contracting has even made a cameo within the narrative of some big-budget features, like in the thinly-veiled critique of United States defense contracting policy in 2009’s Avatar.

Last year’s Oscar races were packed with federal employee stories. Argo, the story of a foreign service officer, walked away with best picture honors, while the narrative of federal workers and military service members -- including SEAL Team Six --  tasked with finding and killing Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty garnered five nominations. Directors Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were effusive in their praise of feds, and Bigelow even was under some fire for the access she received in preparing Zero Dark Thirty. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the biographical film about the 16th president, looked at federal authority over states during the Civil War and received the most nominations of any film in 2012.

The 86th Academy Awards may not feature feds as prominently, but federal employees dot the films nominated for major awards this year. In the best picture-nominated Dallas Buyer’s Club, Matthew McConaughey’s nemesis in the film is the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory decision process (spoiler alert: it’s slow), personified in recurring pest, FDA employee Richard Barkley (played by Michael O'Neill in the film). The DEA is similarly involved -- mostly by Barkley, who uses it as a threat -- and McConaughey’s character also confronts Border Patrol agents while transporting drugs from Mexico to his native Texas.

Multiple-award nominee The Wolf of Wall Street follows the intense and opulent lifestyle of 1980s stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by best actor-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort served time in federal prison for his crimes, getting out after he cut a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI. In the film, the SEC is featured less than the FBI, but a montage shows Belfort’s staff feeding SEC lawyers -- no doubt federal employees -- reams of documents as a stalling technique. Actor Kyle Chandler followed his turn as a DHS middle manager in Zero Dark Thirty with another portrayal of a fed in The Wolf of Wall Street as FBI agent Patrick Denham. Chandler’s longest scene -- bits of which were featured in the film’s trailer -- shows him investigating DiCaprio’s character while on the latter’s yacht, ending with Belfort throwing the agents off his boat.

Tom Hanks portrays Captain Richard Phillips, a merchant mariner, in the best picture-nominated Captain Phillips, based on the 2009 pirate attack on the ship the Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean. The attack ended with Navy SEALs shooting three of the four pirates, and the film’s final 20 minutes feature the SEALs and a naval crew as heroes in the negotiations with the pirates.

The ABSCAM operation was the subject of the best picture-nominated American Hustle. The film’s writers changed names and took liberties with much of the plot, but the basic events of a sting operation implicating public officials taking bribes remained intact. In the film, Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper plays an FBI agent at the forefront of the operation, setting up wires and turning Christian Bale’s con man character into an informant for the government’s case. Cooper’s Richie Di Maso is a highlight of the movie, but it could be argued that Louis C.K.’s portrayal of a beaten-down middle manager more closely portrays the life of the average federal employee. American Hustle being a farce, C.K. and Cooper spend lots of time arguing over budgets, often hilariously.

Federal employees in featured in 2013 films are not only military members, federal law enforcement agents or regulators, though. Like the 1995 best-picture-nominated Apollo 13, Gravity’s main characters are employees of NASA. Nominated for best actress, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is a medical engineer on her first mission to space, while George Clooney portrays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. In the film, their NASA and American flag patches are in full view during Gravity's long opening shots. Both characters use their government training to fight against the void of space and unforeseen events that destroy the International Space Station.  

Hollywood likely isn't going to show a lot of bureaucrats sitting at desks and doing regulatory work, as it's not dynamic enough for film. Law enforcement, military operations and high level decision-makers often will be the federal themes featured in movies. But this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated films certainly show feds in the field, illustrating how important -- and exciting -- their work can be.

Watch clips from the nominated films below. Beware: They contain some mild spoilers.

Prior to joining Government Executive’s staff, Ross Gianfortune worked at The Washington Post, The Gazette Newspapers, WXRT Radio and The Columbia Missourian. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Missouri and a master's in communications from the American University.

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