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Monday, February 25, 2013

How "Lincoln" -- and Obama -- Lost the Oscar

-- By Tom Phillips

OK, why was Michelle Obama handing out the Oscar for Best Picture from the White House?    It’s a question that gnawed at my subconscious mind for hours after the broadcast ended Sunday night, until the answer -- or at least a likely scenario – flashed on me the next day.  

The first lady’s appearance was unusual, and a total surprise.   But this kind of cameo – involving the White House, a TV network, and a closely guarded envelope --had to be planned weeks or months in advance.  The plans were hatched back when there was no question about who would win Best Picture – when everyone thought “Lincoln” was going to sweep the Oscars.   

The Obamas were its biggest boosters.  They screened the film at the White House, and invited writer Tony Kushner to dinner, presumably to talk about the quality of greatness that Lincoln possessed, and which the film-makers and the president hoped to drape upon themselves.  “Lincoln” would sweep the Oscars, and Obama would follow up by doing what Daniel Day-Lewis does in the movie – bend a reluctant congress to his will with a combination of wisdom, humility, cleverness and “soaring rhetoric.”   The first lady’s appearance would be a moment of synergy for the White House and the Hollywood establishment.   Indeed, before she opened the envelope she would deliver a civics lesson about how movies can teach us to be good citizens and a great nation.  So on Sunday night she said this year’s nominated films “reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough and find the courage to believe in ourselves.”    

The three top contenders for Best Picture were each stories of the U.S. government overcoming obstacles and getting something done, but they showed three different visions of good government.  “Zero Dark Thirty” celebrates an arrogant, self-righteous government contemptuous of the law and the rest of the world, fixated on revenge against its enemy by any means necessary.  It cost itself an Oscar by over-reaching – falsely connecting the Bush-era torture policy to the killing of Osama bin Laden.    

Lincoln” gave us a much more conventional vision, based on the “great man” theory of history.  This implies that we owe our greatness to great leaders or “greatest generations” – people who somehow broke the mold of ordinary human nature, coincidentally just when we needed a savior.   But “Lincoln” also cost itself an Oscar by over-reaching, pompously posing as a lesson in present-day politics.   The clips chosen for the Oscar telecast were telling – scenes of the president eloquently imploring his team to get on board with the 13th Amendment, not just for the millions of slaves who would be freed, but for generations to come, the “unborn.”   Now, now, now! is when we must act, quoth Kushner’s imaginary Lincoln, because we’re on the “world stage,” and the fate of human dignity is in our hands!   Never mind that in actual history, the U.S. was occupying a shameful place on the world stage, clinging to slavery long after the rest of the western world had rejected and abolished it.   Spielberg and company couldn’t get over the idea that they had created a teachable moment, drafting old friend Bill Clinton to introduce “Lincoln” clips at the Golden Globes, then  arranging for the first lady to open the Oscar envelope, the golden box they were sure would hold the name of their gem.   

And so the Oscar went to “Argo.”  It's a movie with a far less grandiose vision of good government – an anonymous civil servant doing his job, with courage and imagination, risking his life to save ordinary citizens who were in deep trouble because of America’s past misdeeds.   This sort of thing actually happens, and it’s wonderful that somebody gave it the Hollywood treatment.  And could it be that the Academy, in its wisdom, identified the very qualities that we are most in need of today?  Not the will to kill, not the courage to huff and puff, wheel and deal, and soar rhetorically, but the resourcefulness to do what needs to be done, out of the spotlight and under the gun?   

I think of the obscure government regulators whose job it is to make Obamacare work for patients, or to rein in the abuses of the banks under the Dodd-Frank law.  Go, people.  Like Tony Mendez, you’re not doing it in order to achieve “greatness,” just the task at hand.  

I’d like to thank the Academy!    

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips