BEN AND OSCAR
Ben Affleck’s ARGO has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but not an Oscar for Best Director. This is unusual in Oscar history. The former award is usually accompanied by the second. Affleck has somewhat been compensated by the Golden Globes and, more importantly, the Directors Guild who both gave him the Best Director nod for Argo. The Golden Globes—foreign journalists all—are more critically honest, telling it like it is, and the Directors Guild directors know their film history in order to know how to make their own films effective.
The Oscars are about money, glamour and politics. An Oscar Nomination and, especially, Winner, is money in the bank at the box office. While critical acumen is thin in Hollywood, what’s layered on thick is media publicity and people voting en bloc for their own studio or film company or a person voting for the next director or star they are going to work with in order to heighten their own profile. Sentiment also plays a role in people voting for a certain issue or person (LINCOLN and Daniel Day-Lewis anyone?).
In my opinion, in nominating Argo for Best Picture, and yet not Best Director, Oscar got it backward. Here’s why:
This true-life entertaining thriller takes place in 1979. Six US embassy employees in Tehran barely escape to the Canadian Embassy as sixty of their colleagues are taken hostage by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Stateside, the CIA asks: How do we get them out in the short time before they are discovered and, most likely, tortured and executed?
Ben Affleck not only directed this film but also stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfil,” i.e. someone specializing in getting people out of hostile or enemy countries.
Listening in Washington to a panicky array of ill conceived escape plans, he tells the State Department emergency gathering: “Exfils are like abortions. You don’t wanna need one…but when you do, you don’t wanna do it yourself.” His own idea is hatched when he happens to see a scene from PLANET OF THE APES on TV: enter Iran as a Canadian film company making a science fiction movie in Tehran and spirit the six out as part of the film crew. As he later tells an incredulous and slack jawed State Department official:
“There are only bad options…it’s about finding the best one.”
“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?”
“This is the best bad idea we have so far.”
And, in fact, the film really takes off in Hollywood, where Affleck recruits a wizened and sardonic semi-retired producer and a prosthetic special effects designer, respectively played by Alan Arkin (deservedly nominated as Best Supporting Actor) and John Goodman. Here the wit flies fast and furious with knowing jokes about and often at the expense of Hollywood. What then ensues is clever chicanery and white-knuckle suspense as the faux film is credibly concocted and the escape plan goes into action.
This is a interesting subject for a film that is complexly directed by Affleck. Taking place in Tehran, Washington and Hollywood, it alternates quick cutting among crowd scenes with intimate one on one or ensemble encounters that heighten the initial confusion and then gradually ratchet up the stakes and finally the suspense. The noose for the six escapees tightens as the focus grows tight on the actual escape attempt.
In short, this is a Hollywood blockbuster, an entertaining thriller, and definitely a good movie. But it does not have the substance or depth, the gravitas, of a Best Picture Oscar (Lincoln, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, AMOUR anyone?) On this score, better than Argo is Ben Affleck’s earlier film GONE BABY GONE (which, in fact, we screened last night in Blu ray on our 120” screen in the Performance Space).
So Oscar got it wrong. But you’ll certainly get it right by directing yourself to watch this film for the good, well-directed movie it is.