Lincoln

You know, I don't really care about the fact that Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction for best picture, or that Ordinary People beat Raging Bull, or that Rocky beat Network. I'm basically Switzerland when it comes to the most highly contested Oscar wins of the last four or five decades - I'm an interested but impartial observer.

However, there are a few Oscar wins that do stick in my craw. Number one: it is bullshit that Good Will Hunting beat Boogie Nights for Best Original Screenplay. Good Will Hunting is fine, but it tells a fairly generic story; it might be well executed Hollywood pablum, but it is nonetheless Hollywood pablum. Meanwhile Boogie Nights is an embarassment of riches: it is filled wall to wall with memorable characters, it explores its very specific time and place with a great eye for detail, and it sucessfully juggles a surprising number of emotional tones.

In fact, I would argue that there is more genuine humanity on display in the throwaway scene where Dirk Diggler asks Reed Rothschild how much he benchpresses than there is in the scene where magical janitor Will Hunting gets his cry on in his therapists' arms - and that's just one tiny moment in a movie overflowing with them going head to head with the emotional climax of the actual Oscar winner. 

(You might think I'm kidding - but I'm not. That Good Will Hunting scene is blatant emotional manipulation, but the preening and posturing of that poolside scene is a really good snapshot of a specific type of vain meathead. The former is a well executed trope, but the latter is an honest to God observation about actual human beings.)

And after rewatching Spielberg's Lincoln today I gotta say: it is absolute nonsense that it lost the screenplay Oscar to - of all things - Argo.

Look: Argo is fine, but it is cookie cutter. You know where it is going the whole time; a lot of the third act machinations feel forced and unrealistic (in large part because they were not, in fact, real); the whole thing feels like a rehash of other better movies. I didn't dislike it per se but it also didn't impress me much. 

Meanwhile Tony Kushner's script for Lincoln is much more ambitious: it has to set you into the dead center of a bygone world, quickly introduce you to a wide cast of characters who have mostly been forgotten by history, get you to care about a byzantine legal process, and to get you to suspend your disbelief about whether or not the 13th amendment will actually pass. Oh, and it also has to humanize a man who is basically a cartoon character in most American's minds.

 At least this guy got his Oscar

At least this guy got his Oscar

And it suceeds mightily. This is a movie that does not forget the bloody human cost of the war - but which is also surprisingly funny. It remains optimistic throughout - but it never loses sights of the faults of its characters or brushes past their willingness to compromise their beliefs. It juggles Lincoln's personal life, his professional career, and his philosophical struggles, all while still leaving ample room for his fellow politicians to have their own emotional arcs.

I mean, if you can find one - even one! - passage in Argo that is as good as this speech that Tommy Lee Jones' character Thaddeus Stevens gives on the floor of the House of Reprentatives:

"How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio? Proof that some men ARE inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood! YOU are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you!"

Well, then I'll eat my damn hat. My impractical, rarely worn - but in this case thematically appropriate - top hat. 

Winner: Me

Lincoln on IMDB