A Political Reporter’s Jaundiced Take on Those Oscars

Jennifer Lawrence holds the trophy for Best Actress in the press room during the 85th Annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California.

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

My estimable Slate colleagues have done terrific work breaking down these Academy Awards, from run-up to bloody aftermath. I’ve largely avoided the topic, even though a theme of the punditry this year was how political the nominees were. Zero Dark Thirty became a character in D.C.’s war-on-terror debates, with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee complaining out loud about its glorification of torture. (The Academy seemed to respond to this by awarding one measly technical prize to the most buzzed-about movie of 2012, a box office hit.) Lincoln became a magic word that, it was believed, could sooth people into becoming more bipartisan. My favorite Twitter joke about that movie came from @LOLGOP: It’s amazing to think that Lincoln acheived so much without ever seeing Lincoln.

And then there was that moment when the commander in chief’s wife gave the Best Picture trophy to a movie about our heroic CIA. I’m no fan of the “imagine if the parties were switched” school of punditry, but that would have raised real hackles in the Bush years.

I saw 70 of the movies released in 2012, a function of frequent airplane travel and a function of my un-American disinterest in most pro sports. (Baseball is boring. I said it. Do something about it.)

- Searching for Sugar Man, overrated in a number of ways, was also as indebted to the “white people solve racism” genre as Cry Freedom or A Dry White Season. We’re told, by white South Africans, that Rodriguez’s anti-establishment music galvanized the anti-Apartheid movement. But we never see black South Africans rocking along to the music. Even in 1998, when the musician plays eight sold-out shows in the country, we see basically no black people in his audiences. Turns out that twentysomething white record buyers overthrew the National Party! Who knew?

- Argo was the third consecutive Best Picture winner about the world-changing power of media. Getting to be a kind of boring pattern, especially because Lincoln (my favorite of the nominees, but not the one I predicted as a winner) dealt with the more interesting issue of how politicians can manipulate the media. One of the movie’s best scenes comes when Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) tells reporters to come to the gallery for a surefire Thaddeus Stephens (Tommy Lee Jones) stemwinder. Stephens, noticing the reporters and knowing the stakes if he makes a passionate speech, gives a dishonest defense of the 13th Amendment, mostly just an ad hominem at Wood, and the reporters close their notebooks. For once, a movie in which sneaky cop-outs are prioritized over Big Speeches That Change Everything.

- The entire PR campaign for Silver Linings Playbook portrayed it as a soaring, inspiring portrayal of mental illness—“the movie that became a movement.” I applaud David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper for using the movie’s success to push for mental health parity funding, and respect Patrick Kennedy for shoehorning his cause into that PR campaign. But I felt a tingle of schadenfreude when Jennifer Lawrence totally forgot to mention this in her forgetabble, flustered speech. As someone who struggles with depression, I thought the “cute crazy girl fixes your problems” message of the movie was… a little pat.

- Seth McFarlane’s “I Saw Your Boobs” song was a classic example of cloaked offensiveness—pretending that you are parodying sleaze when you’re just being sleazy. But on reflection, it was even bro-ier than I realized. In many of the movies in the song—Monster’s Ball, Monster, Boys Don’t Cry—the nudity appeared in the context of women being raped or murdered. Wakka wakka!