02/25/2013 10:18 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Oscarmania! (Or Not): A Political Stew on Light Simmer

Even before Jack Nicholson introduced the first lady of the United States to present the award for best picture, this year's Oscars had developed an unusual political cast to it, both in personalities and in substance.

Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in on the Academy Award for Best Picture, pushing Argo. Former President Bill Clinton had already pushed hard for Lincoln, actually making an appearance for it, and director Steven Spielberg, at the Golden Globes. (Which may have helped feed an anti-Spielberg backlash against Lincoln, the one-time frontrunner.)

And of course there was the matter of the political cast to the top contenders: The tale of America's 16th president and his drive to end slavery (Lincoln), a true life if more reel than real story of the rescue of American diplomats in Iran (Argo), the quest to get Osama bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty), even Quentin Tarantino's latest rewrite of history (Django Unchained) and the movie musical version of Victor Hugo's timeless novel of injustice and social protest (Les Miserables).

It all ended up in a great big political stew; unfortunately, one cooked upon the stage of the annual Oscarcast.

I think I've inadvertently hit upon the best way to watch the Oscars -- have knees just sore enough from too much sprinting to make it hard to enjoy anything really enjoyable but not so painful, at least with ice, as to distract from the chronic irritations on screen.

My old LA Weekly colleague Nikki Finke goes semi-ballistic over the Oscars. Hey, it's just an awards show. People have been complaining about it for as long as I've been paying attention. Was it good? Not really. What else is new? Of course, I panned something that is supposed to be important: The State of the Union. (Not as an Obama performance, as an institution.) So a Hollywood awards show is just, you know, a Hollywood awards show.

The oddly inappropriate musical cues, the crashingly unfunny jokes -- with some good things interspersed, of course -- par for the course, if a bit more obvious this year.

Before delving into the meat of the show (with apologies to vegetarians for the figure of speech), first to its end.

Nicholson, star of my all-time favorite film, Chinatown, was introduced to present the Best Picture award. Of course, a natural. But then he segued into his surprise co-presenter, Michelle Obama, live from the White House.

A good idea? Nicholson's sardonic remark: "They're not going to mess around with that, are they?" The "they" in question being the far right and elements of the media, of course.

But of course they are.

The real question is, well, why bother? Does it add anything to the presidency to present an Oscar? No. It's not like Obama needs the name ID. Does it add anything to Obama's presidency to present an Oscar to George Clooney, one of the producers of Argo, and host of one of his biggest campaign fundraisers? No. Clooney seems too cool a character to feel he needed the perk, and Obama doesn't need the aggravation. Let's hope the White House isn't suffering from a bad case of starstruck sickness at a time of national crisis.

While the first lady's role was an intriguing oddity, the movies were the point of the exercise.

While none is exactly Lawrence of Arabia -- either in cinematic impact or in political sophistication -- they were good.

Of the five top political contenders for best picture, I suppose I would pick Zero Dark Thirty, though not with great enthusiasm as I have a number of problems with it. It was clear as soon as I saw its opening sequences that it was too politically incorrect to win. (15 minutes in and the torture was still going on.)

Les Miserables is good but ultimately too over-wrought. Django Unchained, terrifically entertaining but irritating, I'll get to in a minute.

Argo or Lincoln? Lincoln feels more like a "best picture," but Argo is more enjoyable. They both have glaring factual errors that could have been avoided: Pro-slavery congressmen from Connecticut?! The cowardly Brits in Iran?! (Who got over it enough to give it the British Academy Award for best picture.)

Argo's a very nice, entertaining movie -- love the B-movie touch of the plane being chased down the runway, pure fiction but a time-honored trope -- but best picture? Then you look at some previous best pictures, like The King's Speech, which I saw again on cable last year, and that was just a nice Brit movie.

Ben Affleck, underrated as an actor because of his looks, becoming better known as an increasingly accomplished director, is certainly very likable and handled his Oscar best director snub perfectly. And I love Jennifer Garner from Alias, a show without which we would not have had J.J. Abrams's Lost, Mission Impossible reboot, Star Trek reboot, and now upcoming Star Wars reboot. Not too shabby in the muse department there.

It seems Lincoln (or I should say, Spielberg) overplayed his hand, and the movie is a little too documentary-like though Daniel Day-Lewis is perfect once you accept his historically accurate but contrary to expectations voice as I did the second time through.

Zero Dark Thirty, which I expected to love, was a bit clinical and for others, far too anti-PC. I appreciate the desire to get away from a lot of obvious rah-rah, but I think getting bin Laden has a lot more import than the heroine's sense of emptiness at the end. The torture was more in your face than I expected, and is why the picture dropped from front-running status and probably why Jessica Chastain lost out to Jennifer Lawrence for best actress.

The problem is I think torture does work, but it's very erratic, not to mention barbarous (which is why it's a time-honored theme in history). Which isn't what either side wants to hear. Having followed the reports and talked to various people, discerning what role torture played or did not play in helping develop the intelligence needed to get bin Laden is a Rashomon-like experience. Though her reps say otherwise, in my opinion director Kathryn Bigelow clearly endorses the efficacy of torture, which means there's no way Hollywood would go along.

Of course the Hollywood insiderdom helped Argo, in which Hollywood producers aid the CIA in creating the legend of a scifi flick to cover the rescue of American diplomats who escaped the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, finding refuge in the Canadian embassy.

I particularly enjoyed the Argo references to Warren Beatty, Nicholson's old pal, whose name is brandished at key points in the picture as a sign of legitimacy by "Argo's" cagey producer.

But it's so inside that none of the reviews that I saw mentioned that there is no way that the notoriously finicky Beatty -- also then in the midst of making Reds -- would have considered making a picture like 'Zulu Empire,' a key plot point in the movie.

It's subtle humor that seems to have gone over a lot of heads.

There's not a lot that's especially subtle about Quentin Tarantino's movies. I think he's a genius at manipulating the shards of genre material into art. Hence his masterpiece, the aptly titled Pulp Fiction. I liked Kill Bill quite a lot, too, having spent more than a year trying to convince Beatty to play the title role as Tarantino wanted (the character ended up with several hallmarks of Beatty dialogue) and having given selected friends "I Will Kill Bill" t-shirts.

But I have a problem with Tarantino moving into the realm of re-writing history. His version of The Dirty Dozen, which sounded great at first, ended up as the strange alternate history of Inglourious Basterds. And while the idea of Jewish suicide bombers killing Hitler and a whole lot of other people in a French movie theater is real ironic and, you know, post-modern and all, it's also crap.

In Django Unchained he explores slavery by exploiting it for violent kicks. The movie's kind of a blaxploitation antebellum western. Which, in its recycled way, provides a new twist on the old ultra-violence. At least it doesn't have Django assassinating Robert E. Lee and turning his family into slaves.

I've made a habit of encouraging Austrian actors, so I can't really complain about Christopher Waltz (brilliant in Inglourious Basterds), winning his second best supporting actor Oscar for Django Unchained. Except for him taking the prize from the great Tommy Lee Jones, who really did deserve it for his depiction of a real-life hero, the abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.

When all is said and done, I'm not sure how much we'll remember these movies. I think the real golden age of drama is not in theatrical film, it's on television. Movies are best for spectacle. Of course, I would think that, as I write a great deal here about Mad Men.

Which is not so say Argo's not a very good movie, though it's not as sharp about the intelligence game as Skyfall, which should have been nominated for best picture.

But that snub is minor for a film quietly closing in on the all-time Top 5 in worldwide box office, especially since it picked up two Oscars in the bargain. More irritating was the lameness of the the alleged tribute to 50 years of Bond, which consisted of a promising introduction by the fab Halle Berry, a string of clips that must have taken a good 10 or 15 minutes to think of, a towering rendition of Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey, and, well, that was it.


Still, the Oscars did celebrate one truly magisterial achievement, that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. He's fabulous in showing how Lincoln the practical politician is what made Lincoln the statesman possible. The United States would not have stayed united, much less been reinvented, in ways that are still playing out, had Lincoln not been both those things.

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