I’m not a big movie guy. Most movies are just awful, and if you are a science fiction and fantasy fan like me, the really good ones are few and far between. That said, I thought The Hobbit was better than the reviews. I like historical drama as well, but good historical movies are even harder to come by. This year, however, the top two Oscar contenders are historical: Lincoln and Argo. I’ve seen both, and while Lincoln had the early buzz for best picture, Argo will take it.
Both movies tie in the “artsy” category, but for different reasons. Hollywood loves artsy movies, and while Lincoln is the more beautiful of the two, the cinematography betrays the attempt to place us in the 19th century. I’ve told all my friends that one of great things about Lincoln is that you really do feel like you are watching Abe Lincoln. The voice, the mannerism, the movement, all lend themselves to a surreal experience. It’s like that animatronic Lincoln I saw at Disneyland when I was ten suddenly came to life! The clarity of today’s digital movie-making, however, ruined the illusion. Seeing Lincoln is such clarity seemed more like we brought Lincoln to us, rather than visiting him in the past. Lincoln is a black-and-white figure to most Americans. To see him in color added a layer of realism to Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, but it was a subtle reminder that this was a movie; that it wasn’t real. It was beautiful, and it was the closest I’ve ever felt to the seeing the 16th president, but I was always aware that it was a brilliant illusion.
Argo is also artsy, but in a different way. The movie does a better job of capturing the feel of the late 1970’s. The dated movie logo, the decision to add film “grain” to parts of the movie, the cinematography and editing, are all part of a deliberate effort to create the retro feel from a movie of that time period. Parts of it reminded me of All the President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor. That effort is intentional. The intended effect of using a retro style produces something that most audiences haven’t seen in a long time (or maybe ever depending on your age). The result is that it looks fresh and different. Ironically, the 1977 movie Star Wars (which is an important plot device in Argo) bucked the cinemagraphic trends of its day when it reverted back to the epic film styles of the 1930’s and 40’s. Star Wars was fresh and different to the audience that saw it in the theater then. Argo has that same magic. In the artsy category, then, the edge goes to Argo.
A second reason Argo will win is that it plays to the expectations of today’s movie-goers. It’s an action film, and a nail-biter at that. I don’t think I’ve been as tense in a movie theater since, well, maybe Jaws. The film also has a happy-ending (no spoiler there) and closure for the main character. After a stomach churning ride, everyone ends up free (literally and figuratively).
Lincoln is a grander endeavor, but it’s a slow movie. If Argo is a white-water kayak ride, Lincoln is a flatboat journey down the Mississippi. Lincoln doesn’t drag, but the subject matter and the characters themselves move at a slower pace. The old adage that “life was slower back then” seems true, and Spielberg does a good job of capturing that. The only problem is that in today’s digital age, the 19th century seems like it needs a kick in the pants. The movie has that same feel. It reminds me of something my father says, but in reverse: It looks like a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit. The point is that 19th century wears thin on 21st century people, and I think this works against the movie.
Finally, Argo will win because it is patriotic, but not in the overly civics-minded way that Lincoln is. Lincoln is a great achievement towards the preservation of our national mythology. It’s a movie that you could take kids to see or show in class (well, in short snippets anyway). It is Lincoln as we want to see him. It’s a fight for equality, emancipation, and justice in the midst of our terrible civil war. Any movie that begins with black soldiers reciting back to Lincoln the words of his Gettysburg Address gets a thumbs up from me. I fear the Academy and most of Hollywood merely thumb their noses at what they view as simple-minded and overly patriotic. It’s just a little too much Americana for some Americans.
Argo, by contrast, shows the beauty of America by contrasting it with a theocratic dictatorship where liberty and equality are burned at the gates of our embattled embassy. I’ve never felt less secure and on edge as I did when I saw Argo. The tension, insecurity, and fear were almost palpable both on-screen and in the theater. I kept expecting a group of Farsi-screaming, fatigue-wearing ruffians to come into the theater and rough me up! When I left the theater and saw a giant American flag flying over the nearby car dealership, I wanted to kiss the ground and cry. I understand now why so many of those hostages did the same when they arrived back on American soil in 1980. In short, juxtaposition is an equally compelling means of showing the beauty of America, without having to come out as overly pro-American. I’m betting the Hollywood crowd will bite.
I’m happy with either film taking home an award for best picture. I do think Ben Affleck deserves an Oscar for directing. And if pro-American historical films become all the rage in Hollywood, then I might be going to the movies more often.