By Tim Posada, 2/14/2013
This year, Oscar clearly favors American history, namely untold stories in recent times — “Zero Dark Thirty” — and not-so-recent years — “Lincoln” and “Argo”. From the unsung story of political cunning that took down slavery, to a declassified CIA operation, meet two of the best of the Best Picture nominations and enjoy their palpable examination of foreign and domestic politics.
How can I consider a biopic on Lincoln untold? Well, director Stephen Spielberg provides one of his most uniquely structured films to date. Rather than attempt an exhausting biographical endeavor of one of the country’s most beloved presidents (way too broad), Spielberg focuses on the last few months of the Civil War and how he used it to push for the abolishment of slavery. Remember that “Honest Abe” nickname from grade school? This Abe is a little grayer and far more willing to work behind the scenes to get his way. Aware of his ambiguous role as American sovereign, President Lincoln (played by the seemingly always impeccable Daniel Day-Lewis) acknowledges that history will debate if he overstepped the authority granted to him, regarding the Emancipation Proclamation and potentially stalling the war’s end to reach a greater end.
Much a like a groundhog, Day-Lewis pops up once a year (it’s actually more like every two or three) to steal the Oscar show and, of course, he doesn’t disappoint. In a performance that shames Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher, Lewis makes vulnerable the often-towering icon of political thought. Far from a modernist idealization, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is soft spoken — high pitched even — and prone to tangents when his cabinet is rather anxious, you know, to stop a war –– end oppression. This Lincoln is also grounded. Public office turned a once enlivened man into someone subdued: more sensitive to cold weather, graying and much slower upon entrance and exit.
Everyone knew “Lincoln” would be an epic, worthy of critical acclaim and awards, hence the shameless casting of oh-so-many familiar faces in rather minor roles: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who just wants to prove he can be more as an officer than a young man “hiding” in the White House; Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican dead set on not only abolishing slavery but promoting complete equality; James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, one of three men charged with swaying Democrats to abandon party loyalties and support the Thirteenth Amendment; David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; and Sally Field as Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, both supportive wife and a bit chemically imbalanced.
Though I stand by it (minor spoiler ahead), Samuel Jackson is right when he says the film has a better ending 10 minutes earlier. Even a near perfect film can crumble when it comes to something so basic. For this reason, and a few choice others, “Lincoln” was primed to be a widely nominated film in several categories (12 to be exact) — from the technical and directorial to writing and performances — that will only take home one or two. The only truth: no more winter for Day-Lewis this Groundhog Day.
This one’s free: “Argo” is most assuredly this year’s Best Picture winner. Ben Affleck might’ve been unjustly snubbed for the Best Director (somebody’s still bitter about “Daredevil”), but it’s hard to imagine Oscar ignoring this one for the main prize. It’s got everything: splendid performances, choice humor, cultural relevance, suspense, a fun 1970s aesthetic and Alan Arkin (he normally deserves his own category). And let’s not forget how much Oscar loves self-referential films that “heroize” the film industry. Remember “The Artist”? Really? It was last year’s winner. Anyway.
Responding to the U.S.’s decision to shelter the recently deposed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Iranian militants took 50 U.S. embassy workers in Tehran hostage, but six escaped, finding refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). With tensions high and exits low, the CIA doesn’t have many viable options for extraction, especially with such “brilliant” options as constructing wooden bikes and heading for the border. Luckily, CIA special consultant Tony Mendez (Affleck) stumbles across an obscure idea while reading The Hollywood Reporter: pose as a movie crew screening the country for an exotic shooting locale for a sci-fi flick called “Argo”. Enter clichés like, “It’s so crazy it just might work” (thank Orson Welles they never said that in the film).
I’m ill convinced Arkin deserves yet another supporting actor nomination for a role he’s recycled oh so many times before (why do critics love this typecast and hate Bruce Willis … oh, the hypocrisy). But I am confident Affleck was snubbed for Best Actor and Best Director, when he clearly deserves one in each category. Luckily, other award shows (BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards and the Golden Globes) corrected this massive oversight by not only nominating, but choosing the former blind superhero as Best Director. But times have changed. Forget what you know about Affleck: the man’s got major game behind the lens of a camera.