So, by now you may have heard that Ben Affleck’s film Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture this year, beating out competition from great films like Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln (which we weren’t huge fans of, if we’re being honest). But as always, there are questions that plague every Oscar winner. Primarily: did it actually deserve to win?
It’s no secret that every year, studios mount vicious, heavily-funded PR campaigns to ensure that their films have the best chance at achieving Oscar glory. Early front-runner Zero Dark Thirty found its awards hopes crippled early when certain media outlets criticised how Kathryn Bigelow portrayed the use of torture by the CIA. While it’s not suggested that the competing studios started the fire, it’s generally accepted that they would have fanned the flames. In a very similar vein, Lincoln and Argo were also accused of being part of some partisan political agenda on top of having their own factual inaccuracies. All of a sudden, it seems that films have a new-found responsibility to be completely factual as well entertaining.
But for whatever behind-the-scenes chicanery that went on during this year’s Oscar campaigns, there have been few cries of foul play when it comes to Argo winning Best Picture. In fact, Affleck’s film is exactly the kind of movie that should and often does win the big prize. It ticks all the boxes required of Oscar-worthy films while also being an excellent film on its own merits.
And here’s what we mean by that:
It’s based on an incredible true story
As mentioned in the credits, Argo sprung from an article published in Wired Magazine back in 2007. It revealed the recently declassified story of a group of six American diplomats trapped in Iran during the ’79 revolution. After months hiding out in various diplomatic homes, the pressure of being discovered had escalated to the point where the CIA made a decision to extract them in a covert operation.
In the film adaptation, Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the real-life government operative who devised an unorthodox plan to smuggle the diplomats out of the country disguised as members of a Canadian film crew. With the backing of a famed make-up artist and a Hollywood producer (a composite character invented for the film), Mendez left no detail uncovered: he set up a production office in LA and even published press releases in the major trade magazines.
It is a story so outlandish that, were it not true, most people would easily dismiss it as the unbelievable figment of a Hollywood screenwriter’s imagination.
It’s a classic Hollywood caper
When adapting real stories for the big screen, film-makers often fall into the trap of re-enacting events with slavish detail without due concern for the kind of movie it will make. Of course the opposite is also true: the 1946 biopic Night and Day saw Cary Grant play composer Cole Porter as a War Hero and incorrigible ladies’ man when just about everybody in Hollywood knew that definitely wasn’t the case.
Affleck and his award-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio made a very smart decision to tell the story as a classic film caper. Like The Great Escape or Ocean’s Eleven, much of the pleasure of watching this film comes from seeing how their elaborate plan comes together. They were able to weave true details from Mendez’s story into the thrilling finale and tactfully use invented incidences to ratchet up the tension. As a director, Affleck possesses a skill for creating tension from moments as seemingly innocuous as walking through a market. As film writer Roger Ebert puts it: “It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that’s so clear to us we wonder why it isn’t obvious to the Iranians.”
It has a killer supporting cast
The thing that most great movie capers have in common is a great cast of supporting characters. Just as The Great Escape couldn’t have been pulled off without the tunnel king (Charles Bronson), the scrounger (James Garner), the forger (Donald Pleasance) and Steve McQueen’s Cooler King, Argo wouldn’t be half the film without it’s team of top-drawer character actors.
As his CIA supervisor, Affleck roped in the services of Bryan Cranston. A small screen veteran, he made his name twice over in television, first for playing the goody dad in Malcolm in the Middle and then as Walter White, the dark-as-all-hell meth baron in Breaking Bad – a role for which he has won three Emmys. Since his success on that show, Cranston’s popped up in scores of films over the past few years (Drive, Total Recall, etc…) but this has unquestionably been his most prominent big-screen triumph.
Like Cranston, John Goodman came from a sitcom background to become one of America’s most versatile character actors. For his work in Coen Brothers movies alone, he has played more classic characters than any performer could ever dream of. For a man of his distinct size to have such a long and rich career, it requires a very specific talent – one that has not gone un-noticed by directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
Goodman also has the distinction of starring in an Oscar Best Picture for two years running after last year’s The Artist. Coincidentally, Guy Pearce starred in the two winners before that with his turns in The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech.
For the part of a Hollywood big shot willing to produce a film that will never get made, Alan Arkin was an inspired choice. A performer whose work has been admired for almost five decades, he’s cinema’s perennial “that guy” playing supporting roles in classics as diverse as Catch-22 (as Yossarian), Edward Scissorhands, Glengarry Glen Ross and Little Miss Sunshine. In Argo, he eschews the loud and brash stereotype of film producers and plays his character Lester Siegel as a wry and quiet figure. It’s a smart, interesting acting choice from a seasoned professional.
And to round it off, you have Affleck himself as the film’s lead. As producer and director he could very easily have given himself some meatier scenes: perhaps one where he shouts and acts indignant like Jessica Chastain’s big scene in Zero Dark Thirty. When you see a big moment like that in a movie, it’s tough not to think ‘yeah — they’ll play that clip at the Oscars’. On the flip side of the coin: Affleck’s performance is professional and intentionally understated, allowing the story to flow without the need for big character moments. People have kind of ignored this fact but 10 years ago, the idea of Ben Affleck starring in an Oscar winning film was more of a preposterous idea than the thought of him directing one.
Ben Affleck is a great, unpretentious director
But perhaps the most exciting thing about Argo’s success comes in the ascension of Ben Affleck as a major director. But more importantly, he’s becoming a great director without the airs of an auteur. You don’t get the impression that he sees himself as a Scorsese or a David Lynch, whose films can often be identified by their visual trademarks. While they are, of course, two of the great artists working in cinema, not everyone can be an auteur.
Joe Wright is an example of director who never fully disappears behind the camera – his films all tend to feature at least one long tracking take, like the Dunkirk sequence in Atonement or Eric Bana’s underground fight in Hanna. Tom Hooper is another guy with a distinct visual style that he likes to imprint on his work, a habit that some say impeded Les Miserables at times.
While you might argue that Affleck’s features have all thus far been thrillers of a sort, he has been conscious not to add any unpretentious flourishes to suggest there’s a director at work. He and his collaborators seem to shoot his films in ways that compliment the type of story they’re trying to tell. I suspect that we’ll see Affleck develop further in the next few years. He’ll likely become a director akin to Sidney Lumet, Alan Parker or Rob Reiner (who pretty much had the greatest run of films between the mid-80s to the mid-90s). Affleck’s becoming the kind of director that the Academy likes to reward: one who always puts story before all else.
Argo is now available on blinkbox. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.