My difficulty in commenting on the Oscars is that I placed all the wrong bets. Of the movies that I privately predicted would make the Best Picture nominations (and also managed to see), only Argo and Lincoln made the cut. Les Mis and Zero Dark Thirty were movies I badly wanted to see, but life kept getting in the way. On the basis of what other people said about them and what I saw online, I would guess that Les Mis is a terrifically exciting movie and Zero Dark Thirty a rare combination of an exciting and adult one (adult on this occasion meaning adult and not adolescent). As for Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, and the others — well, I have managed to avoid knowing anything about them at all. And Skyfall, Schwarzenegger’s Last Stand, and Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise, all of which I enjoyed, failed to make the Best Picture category.
So the choice comes down to Argo, Lincoln, Les Mis, and Zero Dark Thirty. This is not a sensible set of choices. Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were all strong movies in broadly the same category of serious recent or contemporary history. Les Mis wasn’t.
Obviously I can’t recommend a movie I haven’t seen. So between Lincoln and Argo, I would choose Lincoln. It’s a superb movie on every level, including (to my surprise) the depiction of politics. Because its scriptwriter, Tony Kushner, is famously left-wing, I had half-expected Lincoln to be the villain and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens to be the hero. But — and I watched the movie with a Lincoln scholar who checked my reactions — Kushner’s script is fair, accurate, and brilliantly insightful in its vision of how politics works. So Stevens is forced by the political logic of events to dilute his ideology and support Lincoln’s moral practicality.
Argo, also a very fine movie, is a strong runner-up — a real-life suspense thriller with wit and off-beat charm. I was mildly irritated by the pious introduction that blames the U.S. and the U.K. for delaying by a quarter of a century the imposition of Islamist fanaticism on the Iranian people. But the whole drift of the narrative ensures that Canadians and Americans turn out to be the heroes. We cheer when the ayatollah’s “students” just miss halting the plane that will return the hostages home. So that’s all right then.
Let me return to my main point, however. A single Best Picture category forces us to choose the better Apple over the lesser Orange. It can’t really be done sensibly. I would have the following five categories among the pictures:
Best Musical: On this occasion that has to be Les Mis, but in general this award will in the future be strictly limited to musicals about sailors meeting showgirls on Broadway or less elevated themes.
Best Adventure/Thriller: A strong field this year. Jack Reacher, the Tom Cruise fast-paced whodunit, was unjustly dismissed by boring liberal critics; ditto Schwarzenegger’s fine serio-comic reworking of High Noon. Both movies, incidentally, were against gun control. See both — they’re terrific. But the winner has to be Skyfall, which has revived the James Bond franchise by returning to the tough and realistic spirit of the original novels (including their greater political realism).
Best Political Drama: Lincoln has already won this award above, but I have to acknowledge that if I had seen Zero Dark Thirty, I might just possibly have awarded it the palm. Rarely for a modern movie, it has provoked genuine and quite deep political debate (by which I mean political debate that rises above a few well-worn leftist clichés). I will see it, and so should you.
Best Comedy: This year saw a lot of moderately good comedies, but nothing outstanding — at least nothing outstanding that I saw. But since Silver Linings Playbook is among the nominees and is described as a gentle comedy by some critics, I suppose it has to win this category. But it will never match Weekend at Bernie’s.
Best Romance: Several of the pictures vying for this award are those movies I know nothing about. But I’ll make a wild stab at it and propose Anna Karenina, which, to borrow an old gag, is such a solidly constructed tearjerker that it could survive even a gifted director. By all accounts, Jude Law playing the wronged husband gives a great performance.
As for the rest, well, Daniel Day-Lewis proved himself the greatest cinematic Lincoln and wins the Best Actor award. Spielberg is Best Director. Amy Adams is Best Supporting Actress because, in my judgment, she always wins in whatever category she happens to fall. And the beautiful Rosamund Pike — who refutes Solzhenitsyn’s judgment that there is no such thing as “steaming ice” — wins (though I am the only one to nominate her) the Best Actress for her role in Jack Reacher.
And I would like to thank my typist, my projectionist, my editor, and all the wonderful little people who . . .
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.