'Argo' at the Oscars: What its likely triumph is really about

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Image Credit: Film Images

You know the old saying about how the best explanation for something is usually the simplest? One could easily apply that to the Academy Awards. After all the politicking, the PR campaigns (Roger Ebert in the Weinstein Co. ads for Silver Linings Playbook: “I sense a groundswell”), the “snubs” and the pendulum swings, an elite handful of movies, actors, and artists behind the camera will emerge as winners on Sunday night, and the reason that each of them will win is (drum roll!)…. the members of the motion picture Academy voted for what they liked best! Period. It’s a thought so simple and debate-halting that it could almost have come from Debbie Downer.

For all the positioning and jealousy and backstabbing that goes on in Hollywood, a major part of me believes in the whole they-vote-with-their-hearts mystique. It’s not that I think it’s always true. I just think that it’s true a lot more often than it isn’t. Nevertheless, the critic in me has never been totally happy with this elemental theory of Oscar victory, because I think it leaves out something important: Yes, a lot of Academy members vote for what they love, yet even if they’re voting completely honestly, the reason that they love this one over that one has a meaning all its own. When you look back at the Best Picture winners from decades past, it’s clear that certain movies rose to the top because they meant something in the culture — and to the culture of Hollywood — at that moment. To pick a notorious example: At the 1982 Oscars, Chariots of Fire won out over several other films that we now think of as much more beloved. One of them was Raiders of the Lost Ark — but then, we know that there’s a perverse Hollywood prejudice against giving the top award to popcorn movies. It’s far more revealing that Chariots of Fire won over Reds, Warren Beatty’s When-Zhivago-Met-Karl Marx lefty-historical-romantic epic, which looked at the time like textbook Academy bait. Why did the voters prefer Chariots? Maybe they just loved it. But the explanation I like better is that where Reds, in its way, looked mistily backwards, at the counterculture passions that were then fading, Chariots of Fire, with its stiff-upper-lip traditionalism, its Vangelis-fueled pictorial celebration of valor, athletic daring, and all things British, was a movie that totally tapped the neo-conservative glossy preppie romantic chic of the Reagan era. That’s what people responded to about it. It’s what fueled the Oscar love.

So what will it mean this year, if and when Argo takes the Best Picture prize? It’s certainly a movie that supports the whole they-vote-with-their-hearts mystique, since unless you’re a major churl, there is so much to love about Argo. It’s an ingeniously staged movie, by turns surprising and electrifying. It captures the Iran-hostage crisis — the whole mood that surrounded it — with a you are there precision, showing us how the world we’re in now was really born then. At its best (like that hair-trigger scene at the airport gate), it is genuinely heart-in-the-throat suspenseful. And it is also brilliantly funny. (“Argo f—- yourself!”) That Ben Affleck, in the third feature he’s directed, holds these diverse tones and elements together and gets them to coalesce into a single combustible vision marks him, in my book, as a major filmmaker.

Yet as good as the tale is that Argo tells, I’m also fascinated by the story of the film’s awards-season rise — the way that it took off like a dawdling stock that suddenly rallies, then won’t stop going up and up and up. Back when Argo was first released, in October, everyone knew that it was a terrific movie — the critics raved, audiences ate it up — yet by the time December rolled around, its Oscar heat was not all that dominant. The buzz was all about Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and even Les Misérables. After Zero Dark Thirty was damaged by the torture controversy — and perhaps by the fact that its studio, Sony, kept it in limited release for too long — Lincoln, for a while, became the front-runner. But then Argo did something startling: Even after Affleck failed to get a nomination for Best Director (usually a sure sign that support for a movie is “soft”), Argo surged…and surged…and surged some more. It won the Golden Globes. Then it swept all the guild awards. As I noted in a post written right after the Globes, even the fact that Affleck didn’t get a Best Director nomination now almost began to look like an advantage: a public injustice only highlighted by the Argo juggernaut.

So if I can put it this way, what is Argo love about? Well, for Academy voters, it’s about the sheer terrific-ness of the movie. It’s about the fact that Hollywood has always famously adored movies about Hollywood (as happened last year when The Artist triumphed). But I also think that it’s about something else that Argo incarnates. Last fall, well before any of the other nominated films, Argo brought two things together that had been living on separate islands for too long: serious, furrowed-brow topical  filmmaking…and entertainment. It reignited the notion that serious movies for adults could be popular again.

Of course, that’s true of most of the Best Picture nominees this year. When you think about it, it’s kind of cool that the Academy didn’t even have to go hunting for token blockbusters to balance out the usual array of acclaimed indie hits, since the prestige end-of-the-year awards films all turned out to be big hits. Django Unchained and Les Miz were huge out of the gate. Silver Linings Playbook just crossed the $100 million dollar mark, while Zero Dark Thirty is closing in on it. Life of Pi is a box-office monster (a considerable feat given that its only real “star” is digital effects). And as for Lincoln, it’s probably the most commercially triumphant of them all, given that a number of these films are volatile thrillers (Zero Dark, Argo, Django), one of them is a crowd-pleasing musical (Les Miz)…and Lincoln is a stately, densely packed tale of congressional process, a brainy wallow in historical authenticity. Yet it has outgrossed them all.

So why isn’t Lincoln going to win? It was the front-runner for a major chunk of time, and it is, for my money, the best movie of 2012. The fact that it has struck such a deep and measurable populist chord should be music to Hollywood’s ears. But here’s the grand irony: As a movie, Lincoln, even more than Argo, embodies the Hollywood dream that a work of art can also be a thrilling, out-in-the-heartland success. (It has made nearly $50 million more than Argo.) Nevertheless, it is Argo, this year, that has most come to symbolize that dream. And that’s because it is something that Lincoln, riveting as it is, doesn’t really pretend to be: Argo is a blast. It is fun. And in that sense, it speaks the language that Hollywood wants its serious movies to speak.

For it is worth noting that serious movies that are also crowd-pleasers were looking, for a number of years there, like an extremely endangered species. I first began to worry about the trend in 2007, when Michael Clayton — such a sleekly brilliant and relevant corporate thriller — managed to gross only $49 million. I wondered: Are smart movies becoming the new art films? There was much evidence to suggest that the pictures that were winning the Oscars, from No Country for Old Men to The Hurt Locker, were in some ways sectioned off from the mass audience. And that, if true, was a sad state of affairs.

In that context, the last movie I ever expected to see become a mass hit was Argo, a true-life political docudrama set 32 years ago in Iran. It seemed exactly like the kind of movie that critics would love, a certain “enlightened” audience would turn out for, and that would be that. But Argo smashed through that barrier. In a sense, it finally broke the curse of the 9/11 movie — for surely, this is a film that rivets us in part because of the overlap between the anti-American anger that fueled the Iran-hostage crisis and the anti-American anger that has fueled al-Qaeda. And, of course, it’s a 9/11-related movie in which the Americans emerge as the winners. But I also think that the embrace of Argo — and Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty — reflects a new sobriety on the part of the public, perhaps one that has evolved after four draining years of economic trauma. We are no longer so eager to escape from reality at the movies. At this point, we can also escape to reality. That’s what happened in the 1970s, and it fueled a New Hollywood renaissance. The triumph of Argo, a movie that makes deadly serious issues deftly entertaining, could mark this year’s Oscar night as an official kickoff to the sequel to that renaissance.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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