Argo, Lincoln and the politics of Hollywood

The Oscar for best picture was won by "Argo," the true tale of a secret rescue mission in Iran during the Carter administration. It beat out "Lincoln," the story of how black Americans were rescued from slavery. Does this mean Jimmy Carter's stock is on the rise? Nope, but Ben Affleck has certainly become a blue chip player in Hollywood.

Politics -- not the Hollywood kind, but the Washington kind -- played a significant role in public perceptions of both films, as well as of a third that was nominated for best picture. "Lincoln" is seen in some quarters as a subtle pro-Obama movie with its emphasis on a crafty progressive president promoting a radical, big government policy through political guile and force of arms. "Argo" is a foreign affairs thriller that portrays the sacrifices of state department officers and the heroism of the CIA. And the third film, "Zero Dark Thirty," stirred up controversy because it shows a crucial lead in the hunt for Osama bin Laden being uncovered through the CIA's torture of terror suspects.

Fans of former Vice President Dick Cheney are happy to see their man's support of torture vindicated by "Zero Dark Thirty," and others on the right are pleasantly surprised that the movie did not turn out to be a puff piece for President Obama. Liberals, meanwhile, see "Lincoln" as a reminder of how the conservatives of 150 years ago were so utterly wrong about the greatest moral issue of the 19th century.

"Zero Dark Thirty" and "Lincoln" are weightier works of art than "Argo." Mr. Affleck's Oscar winner is a feel-good movie in which the American triumph over Iranian fanatics is all the more satisfying because it shows the U.S. actually pulled off a little victory at a time when the country seemed to be humiliatingly impotent. It is a well-done film that manages to keep the suspense boiling right up to the closing credits. Still, it does not plumb the depths of political and moral questions the way the other two movies do.

Big issues were not on the minds of Academy voters, it seems. More pivotal in their choice may have been the way the well-liked Mr. Affleck was denied a nomination in the director's category. Once he began winning an armload of honors at the other awards ceremonies, his movie became the favorite to win the top Oscar. In the end, Hollywood politics -- not the other kind -- mattered the most.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.