Yesterday, Deadline ran a piece considering the impact of politics on the 2013 Oscar race, assessing factors from Congressional scrutiny of Zero Dark Thirty to various historical quibbles over Lincoln. Argo, the piece suggests, has one of the strongest campaigns linking the film to real-world events, and to real-world endorsers (though it’s sparked some quibbles by Canadians):
For Argo’s end credits former President Jimmy Carter turns up in an audio interview basically confirming the facts of the CIA mission he approved to get six American hostages out of the Canadian Embassy in Iran by creating a fake movie production. It was a very effective way of validating the events of the film set in 1979 and giving it added gravitas. It also didn’t hurt the film’s awards chances to have Tony Mendez, the real life CIA operative who hatched the scheme (and played by director Ben Affleck) appearing everywhere in praise of the film.
Even more than this roster of praise, the consensus seems to be that Argo, a relatively slight but definitely entertaining picture, racked up a string of awards season victories and became the leading contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards because it’s the kind of movie that makes Hollywood feel good about itself. The ability to create fantasies compelling enough to make an audience suspend disbelief isn’t just a source of joy, the movie argues. It can be a service to the Republic!
But I think Argo has emerged as the consensus contender for Best Picture for even stronger reasons than that. In a pool of strongly politically themed-movies, Argo is at the intersection of two important trend lines. It has a gloss of relevance, but the movie exists at a safe distance from actual events, and from shameful, damaging policies, that remain the subject of heated political debate. For all that we talk about Hollywood liberalism, the Academy appears to be converging around a movie that allows us to feel as good as possible about the way the United States handles the blowback of our foreign policy.
The contrast between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty is the most obvious point of comparison between Argo and its other competitors, but it’s important. Where Tony Mendez, the CIA analyst who is the main character in Argo is safely a historical figure, an inventive hero by consensus before he became a Hollywood story, the CIA analyst who is the basis for Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) still works at the agency. More to the point, though, is that the tactics Mendez employed — convincing the Iranian government that he was shooting a wacky science fiction picture and smuggling out escapees from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran under the cover of that project — is amusing and anodyne, tradecraft that is only impeachable if you think that it’s wrong to lie to people in the name of espionage, which would be an awfully confusing position. The tactics Maya uses, on the other hand, include torture. It’s not fun to watch her watch a man be waterboarded, sexually humiliated, and beaten in the same way it’s fun to watch Tony jauntily fake a table read for his Trojan Horse of a movie. It requires a great deal more work to dig out what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal want you to think about those horrendously uncomfortable scenes than it does to sit back, relax, and enjoy Affleck, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman engage in wacky, ethically clear hijinks. And where Argo gives us permission to revel in its finale, in which a commercial airliner races jeeps full of Iranian intelligence officers off a Tehran tarmac, Zero Dark Thirty withholds permission to enjoy an event that gave a lot of people a lot of pride in real life, the killing of Osama bin Laden, by turning that sequence into a tense, workmanlike effort that traumatizes a great many children.But Argo isn’t just optimistic in comparison to Zero Dark Thirty’s meditation on the ways in which the War on Terror has degraded us. There are ways in which it’s kin to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, each tinted to the era in which it’s set, each convinced of the federal government’s ability to accomplish great things if only inventive people can be freed up to pursue their schemes. Lincoln has a romantic relationship with not just deception, in the form of the letter President Lincoln sends denying the presence of peace negotiators in Washington, but with corruption, as represented by William Seward’s (David Strathairn) work with his delightfully shady men from Albany, particularly in their bribery of the hilariously craven Clay Hawkins (Walton Goggins). The effective invention of lobbying is something that movie doesn’t really have oxygen enough to explore, which is fine, though part of the movie’s sense of self is dependent on the idea that greatness and major social change require strategic compromise, and I’d have traded all the Sad Robert Lincoln screentime for a greater consideration of that belief. Argo exists in a world where those compromises are already long-accepted. Lincoln is a relatively politically unchallenging movie to watch, but Argo is even easier.
None of this is to say that Argo is necessarily a bad movie. It’s fun, and stylish, and watching Arkin and Goodman chomp scenery like it’s their last meal as actors is a tremendous pleasure. Among other things, Argo makes the case that humor deserves more respect at the Academy Awards, which normally gives extra points to dramas. But the biggest bias at the Academies isn’t really liberal or conservative, or comedic or dramatic. It’s towards the idea that the best movie of the year should be generally serious, while also ending up being fun.