Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Ben Affleck’s Argo Will Win Best Picture

A little under three months from now, in the late hours of Sunday, February 24, 2013 (or the early hours of Monday, February 25, as these things sometimes do carry on a bit), Ben Affleck’s Argo will win the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. While I’m certainly no stranger to hyperbole, I don’t trend towards bold declarations without merit. This is not that. Argo is winning the top two Academy Awards, and I’m certain of it. (Or at least 95% certain; I am nothing if not mostly committed.) Here’s why:

It’s a Deserving Winner

We’ll get this out of the way first, because it’s not only the least complicated argument to make, but it’s also the least convincing. Twenty years ago, in Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood famously said, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” He might as well have been talking about the Oscars. If you think the Oscar always goes to the most deserving nominee, well, Martin Scorsese would like to have some words with you out back. While it’s not quite true that being deserving “has nothin’ to do with it,” it is but one of many factors on the minds of voters, and it’s never not always the top one. But having said that, it never hurts to be worthy, and Argo is.

Argo is a truly fantastic film. It is, in many ways, a film that has a little bit of everything: comedy, satire, history, suspense, great acting, great dialogue, topical themes, classic style, human triumph over adversity, a happy ending, bad 70’s haircuts… it’s all there. It’s a film that stands up incredibly well to repeat viewings. I’ve seen it twice now, and what really grabbed me on the second viewing was how well everything was pieced together. Editing is one of the fundamental elements of cinema as an art form, and you won’t find many better-edited films than Argo. (And here’s an Oscar history lesson for you: The film that wins Best Editing also wins Best Picture about half of the time.) Argo is also two films for the price of one; On the one hand, it’s a truly funny Hollywood satire, and on the other, it’s a pulse-pounding suspense film, created with Hitchcock-level precision. The degree of difficulty here is larger than you think, because you can’t have audiences laughing for an hour and then suddenly expect them to be on the edge of their seat. But that’s precisely what Argo does. It’s a balancing act as good as any you’ll ever see.

It Will Age Well

We movie fans don’t ask for much, but damn it, we don’t want our Best Picture winners to look embarrassing five years down the road. Argo won’t. Of course it’s too early to know whether Argo is the best film of the year, but it’s not too early to know that Argo is a (capital ‘G’) Great film. It’s not exactly a dirty little secret to say that Best Picture doesn’t always go to the year’s best film, so the goal is really just to give the award to a great one. Sometimes even that doesn’t work out, and within a few years, the winner is like a stain on film history (I’m looking at you Crash). But most of the time, the winner stands up as a classic, and that’s the most important thing. You might think Rocky was less deserving in 1976 than Network or Taxi Driver (and you’re probably right), but Rocky is certainly a great film that has stood the test of time, and really, that’s all we can ask for out of our Best Picture winner. And I promise, Argo will never be uttered in the same sentence as Crash (well, except for this one).

Public Enthusiasm Matters

The first time I saw Argo, at its Toronto premiere in September, it received a standing ovation, which even at a film festival, isn’t very common. (I’ve seen about 100 movies in Toronto over three years of going to the festival, and maybe 6 or 7 of them received standing ovations.) But even still, people tend to view film festival screenings through rose-colored glasses that inflate quality a little bit. It’s natural and contagious to think that everything you’re seeing is a minor masterpiece. But when I saw Argo again when it opened in theaters, something amazing happened: the audience started applauding and cheering during the movie. I cannot stress that highly enough. The movie was still playing when everyone in the theater erupted into contagious clapping. We were still a good ten minutes out from the end credits. And this wasn’t at a film festival, this was on a cold Sunday afternoon at an Ann Arbor multiplex.

When The Hurt Locker won Best Picture three years ago, much ballyhoo was made over its financial failure at the box office. It was the lowest domestic gross a Best Picture winner had ever had. The moral of the story is that Best Picture tends to go to successful movies. But more specifically, Best Picture tends to go to movies that audiences really loved. And there’s substantial proof that audiences love Argo far beyond what I’ve witnessed myself. Cinemascore, the organization that polls audiences leaving the theater to see what they thought, has reported that Argo has earned an extremely rare A+. Meanwhile, box office reports show that Argo had an incredibly minimal drop from its first to second week in release, and then did the unthinkable—went to number one at the box office in its third week of release. Not only is this an amazing achievement in itself, it means that word of mouth has been nothing short of outstanding. While it’s true that critical and public tastes don’t always overlap, the Oscars have a long tradition of pretending they do. And Best Picture has a long tradition of going to a film that audiences truly responded to. For 2012, that film appears to be Argo.

The Other Contenders Aren’t Really Contenders

Now here’s the part where you say “But how can you be sure Argo is better than all of the other movies coming out over the next two months?” Well, the truth is, I’m not. But I also don’t have to be. Let me explain: One of the great-unwritten rules of the Oscars is that the wealth must be spread. Voter fatigue plays an enormous role in what the ballots end up looking like. It’s true that many of the highest profile films of 2012 haven’t been released yet, and some haven’t even screened for critics yet. They might all be better than Argo. But it won’t matter, because they aren’t winning Best Picture.

The Hobbit may be based on a book that’s subtitled “There and Back Again,” but the Oscars won’t be. The third Lord of the Rings film won eleven Oscars in 2004, so the Academy will feel like they’ve been there and done that with regards to Tolkien adaptations. Life of Pi and Django Unchained both have high expectations and great pedigree, but one is about a boy and his CGI tiger stranded on a boat, and the other is a darkly comic, slave revenge western. Both immediately fail the crucial “Does this sound like a Best Picture winner?” test, and they ain’t winning. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, about the black ops operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, could be outstanding, and so could Tom hooper’s Les Miserables, which looks to finally be the adaptation of the play that audiences and critics have been waiting for. But both films are by directors who have won the top two Oscars in the last three years (The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech). History just doesn’t repeat itself that quickly. For any of these films to pass Argo in the eyes of Oscar voters, they would need to be once-in-a-generation great. And even that probably wouldn’t be enough.

That basically leaves just two real contenders to potentially derail Argo’s Oscar hopes, and both are in theaters right now: Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. Lincoln has rave reviews and audience support on its side, but no movie will suffer from voter fatigue quite like it will. Only four living directors have two Oscars, and Steven Spielberg is one of them, so any conversation about who will win Best Director essentially has to start with crossing his name off the list. Can Lincoln win Best Picture without also winning Best Director? Maybe. It’s happened four times since 1990 (in ’98, ’00, ’02, and ’05), so there’s certainly precedent. But there are two important things to note about those instances. First, they all happened in a brief seven-year span when the Academy was clearly struggling with the whole art-versus-commerce thing, so the top awards would split between the “art” film and the “commercial” film. But in the six subsequent years since Crash toppled Brokeback Mountain in 2006, Best Picture has gone to films like No Country For Old Men and The Hurt Locker, so this crisis of self appears to be over. (Yes, I’m disregarding The King’s Speech over The Social Network. Indulge me.) And second, each of those times Best Picture and Best Director went to separate films, it was the prestige art film that won Best Director and the audience crowd pleaser that won Best Picture. If we accept that Lincoln won’t win Best Director, then a Best Picture win for it would be the opposite scenario of every other Picture/Director split we’ve seen. Add to that the fact that voters will still look at Lincoln as the Spielberg/Daniel Day Lewis movie (heavy voter fatigue alert), and its path to the podium just seems too laden with obstacles.

And that leaves Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s mental disability romantic dramedy starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. This is the film that won the Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award, which also went to Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech in recent years (do you see the pattern?). I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook twice now, and it is quite good. It’s funny, insightful, heartfelt, very well acted… In a different year, it probably could have been the feel-good Shakespeare in Love that topples the heavy downer Saving Private Ryan. But Argo isn’t a heavy downer, it’s the opposite. As mentioned, audiences have loved Argo, and it’s a defiantly happy movie. And Playbook’s Toronto win can partially be explained by the slight Canadian backlash to Argo; The CIA operation that it dramatizes was long thought to be the work of Canadian Intelligence until Bill Clinton declassified the files in 1997. There’s some lingering Canadian bitterness over the loss of credit for the operation, and the Toronto People’s Choice Award is voted on mostly by Canadians. The Oscars are not.

At this point, the best chance either of these films have to announce themselves as the front-runner is to make a killing at the box office. But Silver Linings Playbook had a dismal opening weekend, and Lincoln—while certainly a hit—looks like it will have a pretty similar gross to Argo. That just won’t be enough. 

Hollywood Loves to Market Itself

Here’s where we get to Argo’s secret weapon: Hollywood loves nothing more than itself. Over the last several years, as hi-def TVs and Blu-ray players have taken over living rooms, piracy is running rampant, and television has gotten noticeably better, it’s no secret that box office receipts have been taking a plunge. Recent Oscar telecasts have started doing these annoying montages about The Power of Movies, or Why We Love the Movies, and the like. It’s been a semi-shameless attempt to try and remind audiences that we should go to more movies, like an undersexed housewife donning a lacy new negligee to try and regain her husband’s attentions. Hollywood has been trying to resell people on its own magic, but failing to do so.

Well Hollywood, look no further. Argo is the movie of your dreams. For as many shots as Argo takes at Hollywood (and they are plentiful), there’s no denying the film’s resolution. Argo is a true story about Hollywood literally helping to save six American lives. It’s a film about the magic and seduction of the movies actually helping to combat terrorism. And Argo is no Indie movie. It was made and financed by a major studio (Warner Brothers), and shot partially on that studio’s back lot. It is honestly the greatest marketing campaign Hollywood could ever create for itself. And that campaign will be sealed with a Best Picture win. 

The Oscars Love Actor/Directors

What do Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson have in common? They were all bankable Hollywood movie stars who took a stab at directing, and won an Oscar for their efforts. All but Beatty also directed their films to a Best Picture Oscar. This isn’t just coincidence. The Oscars love to reward movie stars for doing something other than relying on their sculpted cheekbones. Giving leading men Oscars for directing isn’t really any different than giving Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard Oscars for roles where they wore prosthetic faces. The trend is the same: show us you’re more than a pretty face and you get a little gold guy. And three films into his directing career, Ben Affleck has emphatically announced that he’s much more than a pretty face.

Everyone Loves a Comeback

In Good Will Hunting, the movie that turned Ben Affleck into an overnight star in 1997, his character (Chuckie) gives a semi-famous speech to Matt Damon’s title character. Chuckie tells Will that he’s “sitting on a winning lottery ticket,” and that the best part of Chuckie’s day is each morning when he goes to pick Will up, and he thinks that maybe today he won’t be there. That maybe today was the day Will finally wised up and cashed in that winning lottery ticket. “I don’t know much, but I know that,” Affleck says at the end.

It’s important to understand that Affleck helped write that speech. To some degree, those words really did come from him. And this means that, in theory, through all of the terrible movies Affleck made between 1998-2004, those words were still lurking there in the back of his mind. It’s difficult to really blame Affleck for the choices he made in his late twenties. He was suddenly given the opportunity to be a major movie star and he jumped at it. There aren’t many of us who wouldn’t do the same. And he made a lot of bad choices that led to a lot of bad movies. But Affleck was still the same guy that a few years earlier had helped write that “winning lottery ticket” speech. And Ben Affleck is very smart, and very talented. We know that now even if we didn’t know that then. But it’s reasonable to assume that he knew that then. It’s reasonable to assume that he was watching those terrible movies he made, he was reading those awful reviews, he was seeing himself all over TMZ, he was hearing people call him “Bennifer,” and he was thinking about the winning lottery ticket he was sitting on, and wondering why he wasn’t cashing it in. 

Argo is the third film Ben Affleck has directed. The first two, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, are very good, occasionally great films. But Argo is the winning lottery ticket getting cashed in. It fulfills every good thing that’s ever been said about Ben Affleck and every ounce of faith that’s ever been placed in him. And that’s why he’s going to leave the Dolby Theater a few months from now clutching two shiny gold Oscars, one for directing and one for producing (Best Picture). I don’t know much, but I know that.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog post. Haven't seen Argo yet, but I love your rational and support for the film and the director.