I have finally watched what I consider were the big three contenders for best picture last year: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. I wouldn’t have even included the last one except for the insane hype around it at the last minute before the Oscars and its eventual win. Silver Linings Playbook may be good (I will be watching it this weekend) but it is not the right genre for Best Picture wins and Django was really enjoyable but the subject and tone might be a bit much for the Academy. Everything else had no chance on account of not being received well or in Amour’s case being foreign.
Before I pronounce judgment upon these works I think it is important to point out how similar they are. All of them are based on true stories and all of them are far more interested in their plot than anything else; even Lincoln, which despite the name is really about passing the 13th amendment. What this means is that the characters are poorly sketched for the most part. Affleck in Argo is basically an unknown which makes the epilogue where he reunites with his estranged family completely saccharine and pointless and nobody else has enough screen time to matter. ZDT’s main character has but one attribute which is overzealousness to the point of insubordination, but this fervor is not motivated at all. Lincoln ably rounds out the titular character, but his personality seems fairly ancillary to the story or maybe it’s hard for me to grasp how fervently he wanted to abolish slavery when now slavery is regarded nearly universally as evil of the vilest sort.
Let me hit each film individually starting with Argo. Argo is a good film, one of the best of the year even, but it is in no way exceptional. It takes a rather interesting sidestory of the Iran hostage situation and either blandly depicts it or tries to spice it up with Hollywood inanities. The film is so focused on the rescue operation that it has nothing particularly interesting to say about the broader events. As stated above the characters are fairly shallow despite the movie centering on a small group of hostages with Affleck’s character not adding anything substantive. He goes through the motions of a hero but is so withdrawn that it feels like he is being forced. Finally, the final escape is full of stupid guards and manufactured tension and the closing scene with Mendez’s family reunion is similarly artificial and unmoving.
Zero Dark Thirty is wildly overrated. It’s not as good as Hurt Locker and that movie was slightly overrated as well. The problem with ZDT is that it mostly plays like an elongated episode of a crime procedural. Admittedly, the process of finding OBL was likely long and tedious, but films should spice up reality. Perhaps the most annoying thing about all of this is the main character who apparently is the only one of any use in finding OBL and is completely obnoxious about it. I really doubt that this was a one person effort. In fact I doubt most of the movie since most of this stuff is still classified. The sad thing is that Maya’s partner Dan is far more interesting as a character, troubled by the horrible shit he has done. Maya on the other hand is pretty much stoic all the time and we know virtually nothing about her except that she is a “killer”, read: a know-it-all bitch. Thankfully the last 30 minutes is masterfully executed and tense.
Finally we have Lincoln, which you may have guessed is my favorite of the three. I remarked to my wife that they should have called it West Wing: 1865. As I said before this movie is not really about Lincoln, but his attempt to pass the thirteenth amendment and all the politics that went into it. It does this very well with a lot of rousing speeches and somber moments from characters other than Lincoln. Even with Lincoln’s part in the movie downplayed, Daniel Day Lewis’ scenes are usually riveting. He does a great job as an actor taking bewildering stories and lending them gravitas, but the writing really deserves the credit. The movie even has some well timed comedy. All that aside, the reason this is a better movie is that I actually got choked up a couple times. Yes, actual emotions welled up inside me, something neither of the other two movies managed to even got close to doing.
In conclusion, Spielberg got robbed. Which is sad because he has been off his game for awhile (his last really good film IMO was Minority Report) and for his comeback to be snubbed is a bit unfair. In twenty years Lincoln will be remembered fondly while people will struggle to remember the the title of Affleck’s picture.