I like Argo. It's entertaining and pacey, a kind of geopolitical caper flick, with expertly staged suspense and some disarming comedy. Ben Affleck stars as a CIA "exfiltration" expert, who decides to use a fake Hollywood movie to solve a real international crisis, springing six Americans who are hiding out at the Canadian embassy in Tehran by pretending they're part of a film crew. Affleck, who also directs, has pulled off a good minor movie.
But for all its strengths, Argo feels like an unlikely Best Pic. The Academy is not overly fond of good minor movies. In the early weeks after nominations were announced, many analysts saw this year's Oscars as a race between Lincoln (worthy, weighty history) and Life of Pi (spectacular storytelling). So how did Argo end up as the front-running favourite? As with Affleck's exfiltration operation, there are some unpredictable variables on the road to Sunday night's announcement, but here are a few factors in Argo's favour.
-- The rule of nine: Kooky things can happen when you have nine nominees. The recently expanded Best Picture field makes the Oscars feel like a suburban kids' soccer team, with everyone getting a healthy snack and a prize at the end of the season. It's a lovely self-esteem boosting exercise -- "Good job, Ben! Most improved player since Gigli!" -- but the crowded field tends to confuse things.
-- Just enough history: Lincoln's history is lofty but long-ago. Zero Dark Thirty's history is current but controversial. Argo's history goes back far enough to score some retro songs on the soundtrack, but it's close enough to ring a bell.
And sure, Argo is inaccurate, as is every Hollywood film that has ever announced itself as "based on a true story." But its inaccuracies seem to be ones that the Academy can live with.
-- Just enough politics: Argo reduces potentially prickly politics to a safe liberal loop, finally letting Jimmy Carter get the last word on the hostage crisis. (Affleck's co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, have made this something of a specialty: Films like Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March are well-intentioned, slightly pat works that play well in left-leaning Hollywood.)
And unlike some of its competitors, Argo has dodged really divisive debate. Zero Dark Thirty has been charged with justifying torture, Django Unchained has been accused of turning historical atrocity into pulp fiction and even stately old Lincoln has been taken to task for misrepresenting the Connecticut voting record on the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.
Argo is not without controversy. The film has offended Iranians (for making their entire country look angry). And Canadians (for demoting Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor from key player to jolly Canuck innkeeper). And also Iranian-Canadians (broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi has called out the film for portraying Iranians as "hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and lethal antagonists").
But frankly, the Academy doesn't care.
-- The actor-slash-director thing: OK, it's not exactly John Cassavetes doing emotionally raw improvisation with his friends, but Argo is helmed by an actor. Thespians make up a big wing of Academy voters, and actor-turned-filmmaker Affleck plays into their "what I really want to do is direct" fantasies.
The Academy also loves redemption stories, on screen and in real life. When we first meet Affleck's character, he's waking up in a crappy divorced-dad apartment. By the end of the film, he's a hero who has rediscovered his integrity and reconciled with his family. The Academy finds Affleck's own reinvention, from a mid-career actor with stalled-out prospects to a credible filmmaker, equally inspiring.
-- Hollywood: It's one thing to make actors look good. Argo manages to make its on-screen production company look good. It is a smoochy kiss to Hollywood. There may be a bit of joshing -- John Goodman's wisecracking makeup artist remarks that he could teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day -- but everyone is in on the joke, ensuring that the level of satire remains safe.
Argo holds out the idea that down deep even the most venal, vulgar industry player is a patriotic American. Goodman and producer Alan Arkin take poolside lunch meetings, read epically bad scripts and participate in the usual L.A. fakery -- all in the service of their country. This ain't exactly Frank Capra helming the Why We Fight series in 1942, but these days, Hollywood takes what it can get.
-- The Interweb: And speaking of navel-gazing, the whole Oscar process plays out exhaustively in the media. All the analysis and odds-making, prediction and punditry probably influence some of the Academy's herd-minded voters. During the past weeks, Argo has gone from underdog to top dog. Paradoxically, its sure-thing status has become a possible liability, with some extra-pundity pundits forecasting an 11th-hour backlash.
-- Alan Arkin: This is one point that I think is absolutely valid: All movies are better with Alan Arkin in them. In Argo we get Arkin and a tagline. The tagline is not one we can print in a family newspaper; it's not even that funny. But, boy, it sounds great when he says it.