February 25, 2013

All of life is like high school. Certainly that’s the case with Hollywood, where “Argo” won the Academy Award for best picture while the actual best picture, “Lincoln,” did not. The relative merits of the two movies had nothing to do with it. The decision was made on the basis of popularity. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently like Ben Affleck more than they do Steven Spielberg.

“Argo” is a good movie. It is lots of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. But it is Hollywood all the way — replete with scenes so preposterous you can only laugh at them. In places, the movie is just plain stupid, and Affleck, a good-enough director, resorts to one hoary device after another to keep the film going. If you’ve seen the film, did you wonder why the Iranian police chased Affleck’s plane down the runway rather than merely calling the tower and having the thing grounded? I’ll tell you why: A phone call is boring. A car-airplane chase is not. It is merely asinine.

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg, the director of “Lincoln, at Sunday’s Academy Awards (Matt Sayles / AP)

“Lincoln” has its problems, but they are minor. What makes the movie worthy and even brave is how it eschews Affleck’s cheap tricks. This is a movie about politics and politics, when you come right down to it, is about talking — one guy talking to another. It’s about deal-making and compromise and, on occasion, matters of principle.

The easy thing for Spielberg to have done — the quintessential Hollywood thing — was to break up the talk with action: invent a bar fight, maybe something with knives, or maybe a hot sex scene. (Did they have sex in the 1860s? Have to Google that.) But he did none of that. He kept his camera on the politicians, especially the captivating and always enigmatic Mr. Lincoln. This was brave of him to do. Better, it worked — a master filmmaker making a master film.

So it was a PR mistake to have Bill Clinton introduce a clip of “Lincoln” at the Golden Globe Awards. So it was spiteful of Affleck’s fellow directors not to nominate him in their own category. So he was the comeback kid and he did, I reiterate, make a good movie. Spielberg, on the hand, made a great one.

The envelope, please.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.