By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 19, 2011 at 03:48 PM EST

Image Credit: Laurie Sparham; Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesWhatever your prediction for the big winner in this year’s Academy Awards race, the case to be made for each of the two front runners — The Social Network and The King’s Speech — breaks down in a fairly conventional way that almost anyone could agree on. The Social Network, of course, goes in with the momentum of having swept every single major Best Picture award, from critics’ groups to the Golden Globes, with an almost frightening authority. Offhand, I can’t think of the last time a movie really did that — it’s the definition of a juggernaut. The Social Network is also the hip, supersmart, brashly original, acclaimed-for-its-singular-vision choice, and the fact that it’s closing in on making $100 million gives all those qualities an added cachet: The picture stands as vital proof — to the world and to Hollywood — that a hip, supersmart, brashly original movie, one that consists of almost nothing but people sitting around in rooms talking, can still connect powerfully with a popular audience. Plus, David Fincher, with his up-from-grunge visual bravura, and Aaron Sorkin, with his up-from-quality-television verbal fireworks, represent two very different breeds of Hollywood veteran. They have both been around long enough, and wielded enough creative influence, for Academy voters to say, “It’s their time.”

But in this irresistible horse race, let us not underestimate (as EW’s Dave Karger surely hasn’t) the special qualities of The King’s Speech. It’s an impeccable and shrewdly moving middlebrow entertainment, far more stirring to a lot of people than The Social Network is. And, of course, it’s got that whole classy British period monarch thing going for it. The movie may be old-fashioned, but that’s exactly its appeal, and it is also, when you think about it, a rather fresh kind of prestige royal-court costume drama — not as distant in time as a Merchant Ivory teacup-rattler (it’s often more sooty than snooty), but set just long enough ago to tweak our nostalgia for the proud, stalwart, top-hat England that still carried itself with a whiff of empire. Those upper-crust accents have never ceased being catnip to a lot of the Academy, and with Harvey Weinstein now stalking the Oscar campaign trail in that way that, once upon a time, only he could do (and maybe still only he can), you only have to think back to the ’90s, to the era of The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, to know that an Oscar race with Harvey pushing the glory of England is, in every way, a true contest.

Now, though, I’d like to focus in on one element that I think has been crucially under-discussed in this particular face-off. And that’s the zeitgeist factor. It doesn’t happen every time, but the movie that ends up winning the Academy Award for Best Picture often taps into and gives voice to something that’s happening in the culture at large. The connection can be explicitly topical, as it was last year when Hollywood honored The Hurt Locker for making a painful but thrillingly visceral statement about the experience of our soldiers in Iraq. Or it can be sort of pop-culture cosmic, as in 1997, when Titanic summed up a lot of very grand feelings about the technological promises and nightmares of the past 100 years. Coming out and sweeping the Oscars when it did, Titanic was very much a movie that paid tribute, and bid goodbye, to the 20th century (and, I think not coincidentally, to the spirit of misty-eyed innocent romance that had guided moviegoers for most of that epoch).

So how do The Social Network and The King’s Speech stack up on the zeitgeist scale? The Social Network, it’s clear, has the hypnotic hook of topicality going for it in a major way. It’s the first Hollywood movie to really capture the metaphysical spirit of the digital age — not just because it’s about the obviously timely and rather epic subject of how Facebook was created, but because of the way the film uses the personality of Mark Zuckerberg (or, at least, the movie’s Mark Zuckerberg, with his hooded wit, caustic brilliance, and tantalizingly elusive inner life) to mark an essential shift in how we communicate. The popularity of The Social Network and the wry, exhilarating relevance of it are two branches growing out of the same tree.

At this point, you’re probably expecting me to say that The King’s Speech, as spirited and touching and humane as it is, can’t compete with The Social Network as a movie that touches a chord of timely passion. You might even say that it’s not a fair fight, since The King’s Speech isn’t trying to touch that kind of chord. It’s a movie about one specific and often rather befuddled royal figurehead from over half a century ago and how he overcame the stutter that had bedeviled him since childhood. An inspiring tale, maybe even a timeless tale. But a tale that speaks to our time? It doesn’t look like one, and hardly needs to.

I would argue, however, that The King’s Speech is a movie that very much triesto speak to our time. And the reason that almost no one notices that about it is that the film’s timing is something of a just-miss; it’s resonant, yet crucially off. The journey that Colin Firth’s Duke of York undertakes, on his way to becoming King George VI, starts out as tormented and personal, and not really very political. He’s haunted by the choking-on-his-words debacle of that opening speech — the silence! The awful silence!! — and as he comes under the perky tutelage of Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist/life counselor/working-class servant-companion, he comes to know himself as a man, and to face down the demons that put a roadblock between his thoughts and his tongue. At the culmination of his journey, the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony rises in its sorrowful rapture, and he finally finds his voice.

But since, as the king, he is merely a figurehead, and not really the architect of the British war effort during World War II (that would be Winston Churchill, played with a Spitting Image scowl by Timothy Spall), does his newfound ability to speak matter very much in the world at large? The movie makes the point, quite explicitly, that it does. It says that a king’s words, his ability to inspire people through the impassioned eloquence of his oratory, are a singular measure of his leadership.

But wait a minute: Does any of that sound familiar? Can you, off the top of your head, think of another leader who has been celebrated, venerated, lionized for his ability, in challenging times, to move people with his words? The King’s Speech, by the time it finally gets to…the king’s speech, has become an allegory for the age of Barack Obama. The Brits, of course, started out as hog wild about Obama, but back when the film was greenlit, I can’t claim to know what was going on in the heads of its screenwriter, David Seidler, or director, Tom Hooper. Yet movies work in a funny way. They catch waves in the culture that, at times, are almost unconscious.

The trouble is, the wave that The King’s Speech catches has slowly but surely begun to crash. It’s a movie that seems to have been timed for how a lot of people felt about Obama during the days when he was running for president. As he proved in his speech in Tuscon, Obama’s words can still move and unite us. But the romance of Obama the orator — and of words themselves as the political balm for what ails us — may be a story in America that no longer links up to where a great many people stand (even those of us who still support Obama avidly). The King’s Speech is about a tormented man who learns to speak. But it is also about a king who moves a nation with the kind of pretty words that few today can pretend will solve a nation’s problems. And that, I believe, takes a bit of the bloom off this Oscar rose.

What do you think? Is The King’s Speech a movie that connects with its time? Or does it even need to? Does it have enough “heart” to triumph over The Social Network‘s brain?

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