Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, acknowledges he was disappointed last weekend when the Academy Awards show presented its best picture Oscar to “Argo.”
“The award of best movie to 'Argo' was way off,” Cuomo told the Politics Column a few days ago. “It was just inside Hollywood politics.”
Wait a minute – Mario Cuomo ruminating on the movies? The guy from Queens boasts many titles – governor, politician, orator, legal scholar – but movie critic? Did we miss something here?
Film fans, however, should appreciate Cuomo's opinions this year, especially on Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln.” As author of the 2004 book “Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever,” you can literally say Cuomo wrote the book on the 16th president.
For sure, Spielberg's film inspires a bit of conflict for the governor. When he slipped into an East Side theater near where he now lives in Manhattan, he recognized some flaws.
“There was applause here, a laugh there, but not much,” he said of audience reaction. “And there were a few stunted claps at the end, but nothing that said it was great.”
Still, there is no question Cuomo left the theater with even deeper admiration for Lincoln, and the confirmation that he chose a worthy subject for his 2004 book. And the Oscar folks found no quibble from him on Daniel Day-Lewis as best actor.
“A magnificent portrayal by Day-Lewis, a great actor,” he said.
The Politics Column has enjoyed many conversations with Cuomo over the years. Some involved spirited give-and-take, some dwelled on heavy stuff. But we could always tell when Cuomo wanted to talk, and now he was getting warmed up. On Lincoln, he could pontificate forever.
“The picture was seen by people as great because they were mesmerized by Day-Lewis and how he portrayed him,” Cuomo said, adding that many movie fans for the first time became familiar with all that faced Lincoln.
The president, he said, faced three simultaneous challenges: winning a war, dealing with a racial/slavery issue and shepherding the 13th Amendment banning slavery through Congress (not to mention the death of a beloved son and having a mentally disturbed wife).
“It was a herculean challenge, and he did it!” Cuomo said.
But exactly as he did in the 2004 book (with assistance from Lincoln historian and former Cuomo administration official Harold Holzer), Cuomo said the film brings Lincoln home. The Civil War president's tinkering with constitutional rights gets him thinking, he said, about current efforts aimed at “deconstructing the Constitution” through practices like drone attacks in foreign territory.
“George Washington said 'You should not allow war to be begun by a single person,' but we ignore it,” he said of the congressional power to declare war. “Every time a drone fires in a foreign country, it's an act of war. But if you were to suggest that now in the House or Senate, it would be an absurdity.”
The film highlights the paradox, Cuomo said, of Lincoln's love for the law throughout his career, yet he suspended rights like habeas corpus during the Civil War. His famous 1838 Lyceum speech in Springfield so emphasized the importance of the law that Lincoln argued it should constitute the nation's “political religion.”
“Until he got to be president,” the governor added.
Still, in the week when government careened toward a “sequestration” crisis precipitated by the inability to compromise, Cuomo seems to appreciate his hero even more. He got things done.
“The film said a lot about Lincoln, his politics and how he performed,” Cuomo said. “I guess there was never a president who did more significant things in a shorter period of time than Lincoln. You don't have to be perfect to be good, and he was good.”
That brought the governor back to last weekend's Oscar show.
“It was a better movie than 'Argo.' ”