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Three Reasons Why "Argo" Became the One To Beat

You can't always know how the future will treat each year's awards recipients. Will their strengths will come into sharper focus as time erodes the particulars of the movie culture and conversation they arrived into or will that erosion grind a movie or performers appeal down with it? What will we make in five year's time of this moment when Hollywood threw awards at Argo instead of, say, Lincoln? That's what happened again last night at the Producers Guild Awards when Ben Affleck's 1970s CIA rescue tale took the top prize.

We don't have to wait for hindsight clarity when it comes to Argo's sudden rise in the previous deadheat Oscar race.  I'd say that three things are responsible, two of which no one could have predicted.

1. I'd been saying from the very start that Argo's narrative subtext, embedded into its truish story of a fake movie being used to rescue Americans from a hostile regime, that 'Movies Save the World!' feel would be irressistible to the back-patting awards season mentality in much the same way it was for the documentary The Cove some years ago.

The other two factors were not things anyone could have predicted though....

2.  Zero Dark Thirty emerged to somewhat reductive "so much better than Argo!" laudatory soundbytes (they both involve CIA meddling in the Middle East so they must be compared incessantly!) and for about a week it looked like The Real Oscar Deal but what happened next with it was very kind to Argo. Zero became the media's most slobbered on and teared at rag doll with everyone tsk-tsking and fuming and eventually subtly equating the making of it with condoning torture. By extension voting for it felt unpleasant to some, too. Suddenly the "better than Argo" conversation died and was replaced with just "...Argo", a rebooting if you will of where the Oscar conversation had previously been. Sometimes opening early helps and it's more than helped Argo.

3. The last, and most shocking turn of events was Ben Affleck's omission from the Best Director lineup. I'd long been predicting him to win that statue even though I hadn't viewed Argo necessarily as the future Best Picture champ, suspecting that we were in for a split year. The best thing that ever happened to Argo in terms of its Best Picture prospects was Affleck's "snub". And conversely, that's the worse thing that happened to Lincoln. Whatever one makes of the quality of the Best Picture nominees (have you voted for your favorite here?), Lincoln previously had the strongest narrative arriving as it did in this historic year of President Obama's reelection and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Affleck's over-mourned "snub" (people keep conveniently forgetting how strong the Best Director lineup is without him!) handed Argo an underdog narrative in a season where the narratives -- those tricky hooks that make a person or movie so irresistible in the Story of the Year's Entertainments -- weren't all that strong even if the movies were.

Reason no. 3 is in some ways the most understandable now that it's happened and the most baffling. If you really step back for some perspective Ben Affleck is an enormous waste of a Sympathy Vote. He's already an Oscar winner. He's an Oscar nominee even when he's snubbed (he'll win the Oscar if Argo wins Best Picture since he produced) - fancy that. He has a happy Hollywood marriage. He rose to fame with his best friend who is still a huge power player in Hollywood, too. He's risen from the ashes of a weirdly shaky leading man career to become a respected director and a... uh... leading man again. He's super handsome and aging well. He's made only three films all of which received Oscar attention, the latter two of which were big big hits. If anything he's a true golden boy of showbiz with a hugely enviable career and awards run and yet, you'd think he were dying! To this Awards Season he's suddenly treated like the Fantine figure in Les Miz on her death bed; the one to cry over "if only life weren't so cruel!", the one to promise everything to in order to make amends.

And all because he missed out on an expected Best Director nomination?

Mrs. Affleck at the PGAs. Oh, you know she makes this pose at home while mock scolding BenTHE WINNERS

Outstanding Producer, Film: Ben Affleck, Grant Henslov, George Clooney for Argo
Outstanding Producer, Documentary: Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn for Searching for Sugar Man
Outstanding Producer, Animated: Clark Spencer for Wreck-it Ralph
Outstanding Producer, Longform TV: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Jay Roach, Amy Sayres, Steven Shareshian, Danny Strong for "Game Change"
Outstanding Producer, Episodic TV (Drama): Henry Bromell, Alexander Cary, Michael Cuesta, Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon, Chip Johannessen, Michael Klick, Meredith Stiehm for "Homeland"
Outstanding Producer, Episodic TV (Comedy): Cindy Chupack, Paul Corrigan, Abraham Higginbotham, Ben Karlin, Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Morton, Dan O’Shannon, Jeffrey Richman, Chris Smirnoff, Brad Walsh, Bill Wrubel, Danny Zuker for "Modern Family" 
Outstanding Producer, NonFiction TV: Prudence Glass, Susan Lacy,Julie Sacks for "American Masters" PBS 
Outstanding Producer, Live TV: Meredith Bennett, Stephen Colbert, Richard Dahm, Paul Dinello, Barry Julien, Matt Lappin, Emily Lazar, Tanya Michnevich Bracco, Tom Purcell,Jon Stewart for "The Colbert Report" 
Outsanding Producer, Competition TV:  Jerry Bruckheimer, Elise Doganieri, Jonathan Littman, Bertram van Munster, Mark Vertullo for "The Amazing Race"

Outstanding Sports Program: "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel"
Outstanding Children's Program:  "Sesame Street"
Outstanding Digital Series: "30 Rock: The Webisodes" 



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Reader Comments (37)

I have this paranoid concern that, if Argo wins best picture (or even if it doesn't), that the Academy will feel embarrassed by the director snub and make some sort of Dark-Knight-field-of-ten level rule change to prevent these further embarrassments - which makes me prematurely mad, since the Affleck snub is one of the reasons this year has been so exciting, and one of the reasons (probably) that the best director lineup is so strong.
Is this a legit fear, or am I just paranoid?

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

If SLP wins tonight, it'll be the most up-in-the-air Best Picture race since Gladiator/Traffic/Crouching Tiger of 2000.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthonyDC

Another reason: It's very good. It was a good film before LINCOLN and ZD30 came out and it still is one. Calling Affleck a "master", like one festival hailed him, is going a bit crazy but I fail to see why ARGO winning BP is something to be worried about, as if we'll all look back on as an embarrassment. I've made my thoughts on this subject known before, but I find it just as curious that the film has received this sudden backlash, just as many have found it's second wind curious too.

It's my personal favourite of the nominees (although I haven't seen PI yet, grrr) and was in my top 5 of 2012 so it's not just industry folks who want to pat Affleck on the back. As good-to-great as every other contender is - seriously, what a strong roster of nominees! - I do think ARGO is stronger than LINCOLN, which I still think has the Oscar for best picture within it's grasp.

This year's race is fadcinating - it's the best picture equivalent of the 2007 supporting actress race in a way, although Argo has won more than Swinton - and if ARGO winning is considered disappointing then we should be so lucky for the Academy to be that disappointing more often. ARGO certainly ain't DRIVING MISS DAISY.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Aha! That Fantine joke is priceless.
Also, I agree that Argo's early opening helped. I wish that studios/distribs would take note, rather than huck everything at us in the last two weeks of December.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPat

My point is: Argo could win Best Pic and what else? It's not the frontrunner in ANY other category. You think is really viable a Grand Hotel (1932!!!) scenario?

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPivo

Argo had the momentum before Oscar nominations came out. Most people think it's just a great great movie. Consensus favourites win Best Picture. It's a true story with world gravitas, directed by an actor and about Hollywood. So many check marks. The snub happened because the directors wanted to give passionate favourites like Beasts, Amour, Silver Linings a chance. I don't think they actually thought Affleck would get snubbed. Now the snub is helping the film even more. It'll win Best Picture and Best Editing. Best Director could even go to Zeitlin and not Spielberg.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

mike in canada -- i wouldn't put any rule change past them these days. they've lost such faith in their own system.

glenn -- but being 'very good' doesn't win you prizes. a lot of movies each year are. it's these other things that push you over the edge.

joseph -- true. i feel like i don't get enough credit for my slow and steady hand at predicting. I never lost faith in argo (in terms of awards though it's solidly a middle of the pack movie for me) and i got so much flack on twitter for saying it was going to win best director (oops) and maybe best picture back in that week when ZERO DARK THIRTY was rising and LES MIZ was falling precipitously. people were like It's a done deal for Linconln. Argo is over. wake up...

January 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

You may have said this in the past, and a reader might infer it from everything else, but one thing you haven't explicitly mentioned bears stating plainly: the actors branch-heavy Academy does like to reward actors who go behind the camera and turn out Oscar-worthy fare. That was almost certainly what was going on when it named Warren Beatty Best Director for Reds despite awarding Chariots of Fire Best Picture of 1981. It was also a considerable factor for the Best Picture/Director crowning of Robert Redford's Ordinary People and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, to name a couple of instances. (Not to mention the Cult of Clint.)

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

Echoing Glenn's comment I want to add that I LOVED Argo!! Saw it three times at the cinema - I think its a wonderful film. Thrilling, funny and entertaining as hell. Ive now seen all 9 Best Picture nominees and it is my favourite (just ahead of Les Mis) and I hope it wins. Performances across the board are superb, period detail inc costume excellent. I am rooting for it to win and am thrilled by the PGA win. Argo F*** Yourself!!

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChrisD

Echoing Glenn's comment I want to add that I LOVED Argo!! Saw it three times at the cinema - I think its a wonderful film. Thrilling, funny and entertaining as hell. Ive now seen all 9 Best Picture nominees and it is my favourite (just ahead of Les Mis) and I hope it wins. Performances across the board are superb, period detail inc costume excellent. I am rooting for it to win and am thrilled by the PGA win. Argo F*** Yourself!!

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChrisD

At this point, I think "Argo" could become this year's "Crash" and win three oscars -- Picture, Screenplay, and Editing. I hope not, but it's possible.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn D.

i like that this season is so open and has the feel that anything could win. However this is the first guild, exactly the point at which Hurt Locker and King's speech began to win everything. Here's hoping to SLP wining SAG, Ang Lee wining DGA so that we don't know what in front until Oscar night.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Didn't Ebert say Argo is winning?

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I'm totally okay with this. Like a few people already said here I think it's my favorite film out of all the nominees (just edging out Life of Pi/ZD30 and I haven't seen Amour). Every year there's ALWAYS these extraneous stuff that determine who wins and who loses. We just have to hope the award goes to a film that deserves it and luckily this year the Academy has an embarrassment of riches.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I agree with Nathaniel, that the Hollywood big wigs feel sorry for Ben Affleck ( and George Clooney as a co- producer also helps ) , so they want to support him. Affleck's directing job was not spectacular or unique ( and Ben gives his typical stiff and horrible acting performance in Argo ) , but he is getting an extra boost because he is one of the golden boys of Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow deserved the Oscar nomination over Ben ( and over David O. Russell ) , but, because, Affleck is an A-list personality, he is getting all of the " woe is me " press. Argo is incredibly safe and conventional . Artists and award handlers should not laud these types of films. Now, the big news should be that Bigelow won the most critic awards for Best Director, and she didn't receive a Directing Oscar nomination. And, we all know it was because she is a lady.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertim

Russell, Lee, Spielberg, do not belong in the best director lineup. Whenever there's three weak nominees in a given category of five, the category automatically goes down a notch.

Paul Thomas Anderson, Bigelow, and anyone else who can think of whose names aren't Russell, Lee, Spielberg.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Well, if they are going to give Argo Best Picture than I hope they give Best Director to Haneke because when will he ever have that chance again.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Yeah, Argo IS a very good a movie. I might rank it fourth or fifth among the BP nominees, but it's taut, entertaining and suspenseful and makes good use of its running time, which makes it miles better than Lincoln, the other front-runner, who some are hailing as a "masterpiece" (lordy).

And btw, Spielberg himself was a beneficiary of "poor Steven" syndrome when he was left-off the nomination list for The Color Purple in 1985 (to make room for Kurosawa, incidentally) and wound up winning the DGA, mainly out of sympathy.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I can't say I'm surprised that a movie about producing a fake movie won the producer's award. It would have more surprising if it had lost but I do think it has a good shot at best picture. Both Lincoln and Argo are worthy films-well made, well acted and involving so unlike that piece of junk Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain if it happens that Argo emerges victorious I don't think in hindsight it will be seen as a mistake. Now if SLP or Les Miz won that would be another matter entirely.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Glenn, I disagree. I find Argo to be good, but not VERY good. I find the climax to be completely unthrilling. That hook with the Iranian soldiers liking those story boards fairly unsurprising. To me, personally, Argo winning would be worse than Crash winning.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRic

You nailed it. That 'Movies Save the World!' subtext will be hard to beat. The fact Argo is a wildly entertaining movie won't hurt either.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Argo's competent. It's mostly slick and mostly well made, with only a couple really galling moments (cutting together the faux-exectuion with the script reading). But in a year where Bigelow, Carax, Audiard, Anderson, Anderson, Johnson and Wright did amazing work, that we're talking about his snub is rather annoying. Haneke, Lee, Zeitlin and Spielberg do phenomenal work (haven't seen Russell) and I'm glad they all made it. Only in Hollywood would Affleck's missed nomination be looked at this way.

Between Lincoln and Argo, it should be no contest- Lincoln hands down.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Argo is easy to get behind. Its seamless. And while the bar for all these films is pretty high,when you think of the other best pic noms, there is always an element mentioned that is superior/distracting to the film as a whole:

The performances(Lincoln (there was also a big disconnect between the leads, supporting and background in that film), Amour, SLP)
The special effects (PI)
Hardship to get it made (Beasts--6 year old star, no budget, amateur cast)
Unpleasant elements (Django--violence, ZD30--torture)
Visable work on screen (Les Miz--the risk of singing live, Hugh and Anne losing so much weight (suffering for their art))--I don't go the movie to see the work involved, I go to see the story. Les Miz had serious texture issues too. It looked more like a rough cut than a finished film to me.)

Argo is balanced so while arguments can be made for each of the others in various departments, Argo is the most consistent. Its equal on all fronts and that isn't easy.

Is this splitting hairs? Perhaps, but when you can only vote for one, a split hair is all it takes.

Lincoln just hired a big PR guy to try and refresh its chances. I agree that ZD30 opened too late and doesn't have time to recapture its initial buzz the way Argo has and there must be a bit of sympathy for Affleck after the snub, but Argo isn't Crash. Its so much better and so its not a stretch to vote for it.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I never expected them to award Zero Dark Thirty, It's way too soon post - Hurt Locker to do it and Bigelow is still fairly new to the 'prestige' game.

Lincoln could still make it in (never underestimate the power of Speilberg) but it's telling that BAFTA did not even nominate him this year, while Affleck got nods for both acting and directing there. I can actually see a scenario where Argo wins best picture, and Speilberg or a surprise winner gets best director (Haneke perhaps?).

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrami (ramification)

Please can Argo not be mentioned in the same breath as Crash. Argo is A LOT better than the thief of Brokeback's Best Picture Oscar.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChrisD

Argo also does something very skillful, even Obama-like in illustrating the politics at the heart of its story.

It opens with a full excoriation of the Shah of Iran, including America's terrible propping up of his totalitarian power -- a story that's not often told in this country. Thus it has a liberal appeal to audiences who want their history told correctly, even (especially?) if it makes the U.S. look bad.

Then it gives us a CIA hero who in rescuing 6 hostages (with the help of film producers) presents a vision of an America that *cares* and *does the right thing*. Never mind that the CIA was part of the mechanism that kept the evil Shah in power all those years. Never mind that the other 52 hostages were held for 444 days, a national embarrassment that left a scar on America's international face.

Having taken American imperial power down a notch, the film restores it to righteousness. Hooray for Hollywood!

PS: I write this as someone who really liked Argo on an entertainment level and doesn't really mind its recent awards haul.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Arkaan: Johnson? It's killing me that I can't figure out who that is. :)

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Mike:I believe it's Rian Johnson, director of Looper.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeoffrey

Of course! Thanks.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Hollywood loves "Argo" because it celebrates the power of movies. "Zero Dark Thirty" is well made but depressingly realistic. "Lincoln" is the classic studio prestige epic biography.

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

The director catagory is not that did Russell make it?? And this coming from a SLP fan. I agree that Affleck doesn't need all the sympathy, but that doesn't mean he wasn't snubbed, not that Argo shouldn't win (its my fave of the movies that actually have a chance)

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBroooooke

Ric, difference is that there is so much evidence of people loving ARGO before it became the cause celebre due to Affleck's "snub". It's incredibly popular with critics *and* audiences. CRASH not so much. My point is that, in the grand scheme of things, it's not like ARGO's second wind should be all that surprising. It's a well-liked movie that is also one of the shorter nominees (that might be a plus this year).

People will have different opinions of every movie, but if you think ARGO's winning (which, let's face it, is hardly locked and loaded) is purely because of extraneous factors then you probably weren't paying attention all season long. As Nathaniel mentions, they may be reasons keeping it chugging along, but to deny it was immensely popular beforehand seems silly.

And now it's just won SAG ensemble, so... umm... :/

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

It's early. There's still a month to the Oscars; it will be interesting to see if things shift again in what has been a surprisingly fluid year. Sure, if the Oscars were held this week, ARGO would probably win. But in four weeks - who knows?

If the favourite can become a film WITHOUT A DIRECTOR NOMINATION, and a nomination total lower than four other Picture nominees (LINCOLN, PI, SILVER & LES MIS), that's gotta make for an exciting race.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

If anything, the recent rush to hail ARGO could mean the Academy - who maybe really truly didn't like it as much as its only 7 nominations may attest - really do go with something else. The extended period of time between noms and ballots being handed in could now mean they've seen all the Argo wins and go "yeah, we're going with Lincoln, you've won enough." But, then again, when have they ever done that?

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

The fact that "Phase 2" is so long means this is far from over, even with Argo's increasing momentum. This is still one of the most exciting Oscar years in recent memory, as there's a genuinely great field of nominees and at least four or five films with a really good shot at winning Best Picture. At this moment, I do think Argo will win, but who knows what will happen in the next couple of weeks?

In more important news, AMOUR has finally opened near me! YAY!

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

ARGO team must feel pretty damn good right now, but I bet they wish Oscar ballots were already out. The ballots aren't even sent out until 2/8! Certainly plenty of time for a "backlash" to happen, though it's always about which film the "opposition" can rally behind.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Affleck's "sympathy vote" does such a disservice to who was actually nominated, and also to the even bigger snubee, Kathryn Bigelow. In what world was Affleck's snub > Bigelow's snub? I've read enough best director write-ups that seem to edit her out of the equation all together, and then that have the nerve to question the nominations for Haneke and Zeitlin. If you're looking to someone who "took away someone's slot," look no farther than David O. Russell for that. It seems like he's getting a free pass b/c everyone's so in love with "Silver Linings Playbook" (and I love the shit out of it too). Even I can call a spade a spade and question Russell's nod there, no matter how many actors he directed to nominations. I'm still predicting Spielberg to the end, but with the "Argo" surge, they might just ditch "Lincoln" entirely except for Daniel Day-Lewis (coasting to his third win when Meryl had to wait DECADES for her third win--be in better films, La Streep). Is Ang Lee the victor there? 2 directing wins of non-BP winners? Ouch. If Russell wins, heaven help us.

January 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOrion

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