When the Oscar presenters rip open the envelope for best picture at the Academy Awards next month they will be offering a rare glimpse into the soul of America.

Movies have held a special place in American cultural life since they first flickered on sheets stretched across theater stages. And the pictures and people chosen to receive the Oscars have come to represent an artistic aristocracy to revere and admire.Among the movies Academy members are considering are three that offer distinctly different views of how Americans see themselves and their place in the world.

Ben Affleck’s Argo is about a group of American diplomats in Iran who slipped out the back of the embassy in Tehran the day Islamic fundamentalists rushed in the front. They took refuge in the plucky Canadian ambassador’s residence and, by posing as Canadian filmmakers looking for locations for a nonexistent Hollywood movie, obtained papers that allowed them to fly to freedom.

The movie is a traditional piece of Hollywood hokum. In real life the escape lacked the movie’s contrived tense, near-capture moments and the final scene, where Khomeini’s goons race down the runway to prevent the plane carrying our anxious envoys from taking off, never happened.

But what the heck. It is a ripping good yarn laced with humor in which the truth was bent a little to keep us on the edges of our seats.