Once viewed as an Oscar afterthought, 'Argo' becoming a Best Picture juggernaut

Ben Affleck directs a scene on the set of “Argo.”

Photo by Keith Bernstein, © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Ben Affleck directs a scene on the set of “Argo.”

"Argo" chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis-the truth of which was unknown ...

Rating: R for language and some violent images

Length: 120 minutes

Released: October 12, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber

Director: Ben Affleck

Writer: Chris Terrio, Antonio J. Mendez, Joshuah Bearman

More info and showtimes »

Historians say the lesson of history is that there’s no such thing as a foreseeable future. Honest Oscar forecasters would have to agree.

When Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane announced the best picture nominees Jan. 10, pundits immediately declared a front-runner. “The contest has come down to one film, and it’s ‘Lincoln,’ an excellent, very popular movie by a great director on a subject that inspires, uplifts, redeems. It’s the perfect Academy movie,” wrote Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the website Grantland.

In mid-January, “Argo” looked like an afterthought in the best film category. It was a fact-based spy caper with a hefty dose of inside-the-industry humor about Hollywood types who build a cover story concealing a CIA rescue mission to Iran. The film garnered seven nominations, including best supporting actor for Alan Arkin, but not a prestigious best actor or director nod (best picture and director Oscars traditionally go hand in hand).

The movie was undeniably polished and uplifting. Still, it lacked the brio of “Django Unchained,” the moral complications of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the operatic intensity of “Les Miserables,” the gravitas of “Amour,” the life-affirming zest of “Silver Linings Playbook,” or the visionary sweep of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Life of Pi.” The best picture nomination looked like a symbolic gesture commending director/star Ben Affleck for crafting a good, facile piece of commercial entertainment.

What a difference a month makes. The story of an improbable escape plot has become the unlikely front-runner for Hollywood’s highest honor. Over the past four weeks “Argo” has surged, becoming almost every commentator’s top contender.

The reassessment follows a string of meaningful wins in the run-up to the big show. The movie won best film at the Producers Guild, Affleck won at the Directors Guild, and both triumphed at the Golden Globes, Britain’s BAFTAs and the broadcast film critics’ Critics’ Choice Awards. The Screen Actors Guild awarded “Argo’s” cast its prize for best ensemble performance. Hedging its bets, bookmaker Bovado boosted “Argo” to the likeliest winner, with odds of 2-7.

Suddenly the afterthought was a juggernaut.

This is hardly the first time a dark horse has made a last-minute charge to the head of the pack. Just ask Spielberg about Oscar night 1999. Presenter Harrison Ford looked a little shocked as he read the best picture results. The lightweight romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love” trounced “Saving Private Ryan” even though Spielberg had beaten “Shakespeare’s” John Madden as best director.

In 2006, another of this year’s best director nominees, Ang Lee, was heavily favored to win a best picture prize for his emotionally intense cowboy love story “Brokeback Mountain.” The film swept up critics’ and guild prizes, but lost to “Crash,” a sprawling drama about race relations in Los Angeles. The win was greeted with gasps of astonishment inside the Kodak Theatre.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a shock. “Crash’s” huge ensemble cast won the crucial SAG award, and some Oscar observers reasoned that virtually every actor voting for the film shared an agent, manager or publicist with someone on-screen in “Crash.”

Others linked “Brokeback” backlash to voters’ discomfort with the film’s frank portrait of a gay romance. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan said the problem wasn’t with the film’s quality, but its subject matter. “You could not take the pulse of the industry,” he wrote, “without realizing that this film made people distinctly uncomfortable.”

This year, it’s not an issue of discomfort, but of which film makes movie-industry voters feel better about themselves. Hollywood adores films about Hollywood, and “Argo” paints its filmmaker characters as brilliant hucksters more adept at the art of deception than even career secret agents.

John Goodman plays the late makeup man John Chambers, a real-life Oscar winner. Arkin plays composite character Lester Siegel, a gruff, crafty producer. They gear up the Hollywood dream factory to hoodwink the Iranians with dazzling posters and storyboards and save the day for the U.S. government.

When Oscar voters applaud a film like this or last year’s love letter to silent-era Tinseltown “The Artist,” they’re patting themselves on the back. And then there are the intangible factors of personal campaigning. It can hardly hurt the film’s chances that Affleck and the film’s producer, George Clooney, are two of the best-liked, most media-savvy men in film.

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