Conflict king in documentary race

Moore back on Oscar track along with quartet of war-themed films

War-oriented documentaries might have been dead on arrival at the 2007 boxoffice, but they dominated the documentary feature Oscar noms.

Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs' Iraq War investigation "No End in Sight," Richard E. Robbins' Iraq and Afghanistan soldier study "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," Alex Gibney and Eva Orner's Afghani torture victim story "Taxi to the Dark Side" and Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine's Ugandan conflict study "War/Dance" all made the cut on Tuesday. Michael Moore's health-care expose "Sicko" rounded out the field.

Moore's breakthrough "Fahrenheit 9/11," which grossed $119 million in 2004, proved there could be an audience for war documentaries and helped unleash the flood of conflict-themed docus and narrative films that flooded (and often bombed) last year at the boxoffice.

One exception was the Magnolia Pictures/Representational Pictures film "No End in Sight," which became last year's second-highest-grossing docu — albeit with just $1.4 million, a reflection of the weakening documentary marketplace.

"I think one reason it reached an audience is that in less than two hours you can learn what happened in Iraq, and it's a topic that hasn't always been well covered," Ferguson said.

Ferguson's mentor, "No End" executive producer Gibney, scored a nom for the ThinkFilm/X-Ray production "Dark Side," a harsh look at the kidnapping and torture of an Afghani cab driver who died in U.S. custody. It's Gibney's second nomination (after 2005's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") and one of two this year for ThinkFilm, which has scored six docu noms in the past six years.

"I feel the film is more about the corruption of the American character than about war," Gibney said, though the distinction might not matter to moviegoers.

"People are suffering from issue fatigue, and it's become a fragmented audience," he added. "Hopefully, this nomination will help it reach more people."

Robbins' Documentary Group production "Homecoming" features such celebs as Robert Duvall and Aaron Eckhart reading letters from Iraqi and Afghani soldiers. The Fines' ThinkFilm/Shine Global and Fine Films production "War/Dance" also puts a human face on conflict, in its case children caught in the northern Uganda war.

By focussing on such issue-related films rather than equally acclaimed docus like "My Kid Could Paint That," the Academy might have been sending a message of its own.

For his part, Moore's "Sicko" became (at $24.5 million) the third-top-grossing docu of all time.

"I hope this Oscar nomination does for health care what the (nomination and wins for) 'An Inconvenient Truth' did for global warming," he said. "I think it helped put the subject in the election debates."