Tony Kushner deserved better (Oscars 2013)

The Oscars are not an election. That’s been my mantra today. America did not reject Abraham Lincoln last night. And again, unlike an election, the identity of the Oscar winners has absolutely no impact on my life or that of my family. We are not “in the industry” and, indeed, we really only manage to watch nominated movies every few years. Nevertheless, when the Oscar for best adapted screenplay was presented to Chris Terrio for Argo, and not Tony Kushner for Lincoln, I was furious. Here’s my effort to explain my feelings about this not particularly consequential moment in time.

I saw both Lincoln and Argo twice. They are terrific films. From one vantage point, its edge of the seat makes Argo a more accessible film than Lincoln. No matter how you look at it, however, it is more of a caper than an epic and its view, ultimately, is limited rather than sweeping. Lincoln is beautifully written and, as the Academy recognized, the acting is beyond compare. Daniel Day Lewis gives us each the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with one of our country’s greatest leaders. And the screenplay made Lincoln accessible, human and worthy of reverence. This is no small feat.

Lincoln begins with the President talking to soldiers as they prepare to head back to the front lines. The conversation ends with the soldiers walking away from the President reciting his words at Gettysburg. The scene is about inspiration and about the unique power of the words of this President from long ago. Kushner’s script, in which his conversation makes Gettysburg and other soaring moments of oratory seem obviously within Lincoln’s grasp, is the means by which generations will get to know Lincoln and his time. The notion that Terrio’s Argo is somehow a greater achievement than Kushner’s defies my understanding, and, in the end, that is the reason for my anger last night and today.

Listening is an essential component of advocacy and the cornerstone of democracy. As Kushner’s movie reveals, Lincoln was a careful listener. I aspire to do the same. So, as a supporter of gun control, I want to hear what gun owners think. As a supporter of President Obama, I wanted to hear why someone would vote for Mitt Romney. And, in listening to people who disagree with me, I learn about the strengths and weaknesses of my view. In response, I like to look for a middle ground – a place where we can agree. In conversations on the radio about gun control– universal background checks and some sort of mental health based constraints on ownership seemed to be places of overlap, where gun enthusiasts and I could agree on the need for change. In talking to people about Romney, I could share my frustration with the positional nature of Obama’s leadership without abandoning my support for the President. In matters of politics, I continue to think much unites us and that our leaders’ failure to seek those spaces of agreement is part of why we are all so frustrated with Washington.

Respectful dialogue, however, requires meaningful participation from both sides. Saying that Obama is a criminal who was born in Kenya is not argument — it’s nonsense, the kind of nonsense offered to cover up a failure to think and consider. Similar is the oft-repeated claim that our constitution just means we just get to have firearms designed to kill people in droves. People who make those statements are not engaged in meaningful consideration of the issues. They already know the answer and they don’t feel that they have any obligation to explain. Often, as in these examples, they are really very, very wrong.

And that’s the feeling I had last night. It was as if the Academy had simply decided that Argo would win. The only argument available for Terrio amounts to saying “his screenplay is better.” That’s not reasoned consideration; it’s a conclusion. Kushner’s words are considerably more beautiful. His characters describe and demonstrate real emotions, worries and concerns that transcend time and (even) the story itself. Terrio’s do not. Nevertheless, he won. And that’s why I’m frustrated today. It’s no longer anger. It’s just a feeling that a wrong thing happened for no supportable reason. It’s a lousy feeling and it is important, for me, to remember that it was not an election. Lincoln won his elections a long time ago, and we are all much better off as a consequence.

About Josh Davis

Josh is an employment lawyer, law teacher, blogger and radio commentator.
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1 Response to Tony Kushner deserved better (Oscars 2013)

  1. Reid Neureiter says:

    Very powerful essay Josh. I agree to a large extent. But when it comes to voting, you never know how things will turn out. It’s almost like a jury. You don’t have a thoughtful expert in patent technology making a decision. You have six demonstrably inexpert federal civil jurors. In a medical malpractice case, anyone who knows anything about medicine will likely be stricken from the jury. In the case of the Oscars, you did not have expert political historians, High Honors English majors, or people who look remarkably similar to Abraham Lincoln making the decision. Instead, movie-people, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, many of who are not terriblly well-educated in American history, made the call. And apparently, for a majority of those people, accessible “edge of the seat quality” ruled the day.

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