Off the Carpet: The long, strange trip of 'Argo'

Posted by · 11:03 am · February 18th, 2013

The epic journey of Ben Affleck’s “Argo” began at the Telluride Film Festival in September. After a couple of years of pandering a bit by accepting Toronto-bound Oscar bait in the form of films like “Black Swan,” “The Descendants” and “127 Hours,” and then bizarrely bemoaning the surge in awards coverage they yielded, the festival’s directors pulled back over the last two years, retreating to their former identity of carefully curating selections from international festivals. But they nevertheless left room for one “Sneak Preview” on the line-up this time around, and that film was “Argo.”

The film blew the roof off at its first screening there for patrons of the festival and attending press. A burst of applause hit at the film’s oft-discussed airport climax and the stage was set for an Oscar thoroughbred to find its way through the season. But there were still six whole months in the season left to go. And no one wants to be a frontrunner too early for too long.

Soon enough, another film would join the conversation, as David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and delighted audiences there. But “Argo” still had plenty to offer as it had its “official” premiere at the fest, duking it out with Russell’s film for the coveted Audience Award.

“Argo” would ultimately yield that prize to Harvey Weinstein’s primped and prepared contender, and it would also weather its first dose of controversy. Canadians weren’t pleased with perceived insinuations that their government’s hand in what was, after all, called “The Canadian Caper” was more superficial than the history had suggested. Affleck and Warner Bros. handled it swiftly and gracefully, adding a card at the end of the film for clarification, and the dust-up stretched no further than the Toronto city limits.

Lucky for “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” still had the onus of Oscar heavy. Sight-unseen, the film was an on-paper sure thing. Films like “Anna Karenina,” “The Master” and “Cloud Atlas” played at the fest but were quickly regarded as uphill battles for Oscar. The sense was that we hadn’t seen our Best Picture winner yet and, again, there was so much more around the corner.

The next stop of the season was the New York Film Festival. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” would become an instant player as the opening night film, a visual wonder from a respected filmmaker. But ahead of its “official” AFI Fest bow, “Lincoln” would pop up as a surprise screening at the fest like “Hugo” last year. Finally gracing the season with its presence, it was a long breath of a film, a studied consideration of the 16th President’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. It wasn’t the expected Spielberg. It was contained. Indeed, the reserve even stretched to the work of composer John Williams. But while the sight-unseen frontrunner had finally landed, few were ready to concede it the victory just yet, even if a boatload of nominations were surely expected.

There were still more films to come, and after the Thanksgiving holiday, they would hit the ground running. “Les Misérables” was the first to come out of hiding, premiering to a New York audience full of guild and Academy members. And it couldn’t have played better: applause throughout, crying, rave responses. One would be forgiven for thinking we had a Best Picture frontrunner on our hands, particularly with such a given as the Best Supporting Actress winner appearing clear as day. Further screenings on the west coast would begin to add nuance to the overall reaction as a great many critics, foreshadowing the overall critical reception to the film, took umbrage with the film’s aesthetic. Nevertheless, the Broadway adaptation had more than its fair share of fans in the industry and was poised to be a big Oscar player.

“Les Mis” would have its moment for a time, but then Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” would steal its thunder and really make an impact. Seemingly starving for something this heady after the gooey “Les Misérables,” the critics took to it like red meat. The film landed the weekend after “Les Mis” did and seemed to kill two birds with one stone: It presented itself as a drier, more journalistically minded and therefore “more important” CIA thriller alternative to “Argo” and, via star Jessica Chastain, muscled (for a time) Jennifer Lawrence out of frontrunner spot for Best Actress she had held since “Silver Linings Playbook” hit Toronto over two months prior. It seemed like it could be an awards juggernaut, but would it be too cold and distanced for Academy members to embrace it?

Whether it would or wouldn’t, the first batch of precursor groups were enamored with their shiny new play thing. The New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review crowned it the year’s best as December rolled around, thought the Los Angeles Film Critics Association would stick up for (somewhat futilely) “The Master” and (as perhaps a saving grace) “Amour.” But controversy was awaiting Kathryn Bigelow’s film, and particularly, Mark Boal’s journalistic efforts behind it.

Senators in Washington, in a bold, unprecedented move, not only took the film to task for what they viewed as a pro-torture argument, but instructed the filmmakers to alter content they felt indicated that key information in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was directly obtained via torture, or, “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Whether “Zero Dark Thirty” could have survived the season en route to a Best Picture win without this controversy is up for debate. But it was very late in gearing up a proper awards campaign and it was wholly unprepared to deal with the nuance lost in the debate. Damage was surely done, but the level to which that damage truly mattered to the opinions of artists is, again, debatable.

As more and more regional critics groups began to speak up, the scales shifted. But they didn’t shift to “Life of Pi” or “Lincoln” or the other films that had shown up in the interim since the Telluride Film Festival. They shifted to the one film seemingly elbowed out of the way by all of the season’s comers. They shifted to “Argo.” And they would stay there, though not without a scare.

As the year drew to a close, it started to become apparent that Affleck’s movie was the most generally agreeable choice. It was a consensus pick. It was something everyone could agree on. And in a voting procedure that features the preferential ballot, that was going to be of the utmost importance. But when the Oscar nominations were revealed on the morning of January 10, all hope, but for a moment, seemed to be lost. “Argo” received seven nominations, but the film’s director was skipped over by that branch for more artful choices like Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin.

The Academy’s schedule change had yielded a bit of chaos for the guilds, which voted much earlier than normal and missed this and that (like lead actress Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” or supporting actor Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained”). But this perceived “snub” wasn’t really owed to that. Theories were aplenty. Perhaps many directors felt that Affleck was sure to be nominated, so they wanted their vote to be felt elsewhere. Perhaps there was a bit of putting the actor-turned-filmmaker in his place. No one can be sure, but the film took a hit as other contenders like “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln” and even “Silver Linings Playbook” all received more nominations. Indeed, “Lincoln”‘s field-leading 12 made it, for all of a day, the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. For the first time this season, Spielberg’s handsome effort had a tangible feeling of being “the one.”

That night, things would start to change. At the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, “Argo” would win Best Picture and Best Director. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” Affleck said in cheeky retort to the morning’s shocking turn of events. It was a happy moment for the team, one that felt like it would be a nice consolation. But the idea nevertheless began to formulate: Could “Argo” become only the fourth film in the Academy’s history to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination?

Over that upcoming weekend, “Argo” would keep its newfound second wind blowing. It would win Best Picture – Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards, while “Les Misérables” would reign victorious in the comedy/musical category (seemingly taking out “Silver Linings Playbook,” though it was by no means finished). More regional critics awards would be added to the tally in January and suddenly, “Argo” was the most critically awarded film of the year, not “Zero Dark Thirty” (though Bigelow’s film was on life support in the season by this time, Chastain’s wins at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globes notwithstanding).

Now it was time for the industry to speak up, and since “they” had notched “Argo” in fifth place for overall Oscar nominations, and since voting for the Globes and Critics’ Choice awards happened outside the frame of Affleck’s “snub,” surely they would anoint the “true” industry favorite. Well, in so many words, they would do just that.

“Argo” won the Producers Guild prize, surprising to some. As February rolled around, it would win the Directors Guild prize, surprising to many. And for good measure, it would win the Screen Actors Guild ensemble prize, surprising to most. The weekend final ballots were mailed out to the Academy (a full month after the nominations were announced, which could ultimately yield any number of unexpected nuance, we should add), the film went across the pond to pick up BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Best Director.

The juggernaut was in full force so much that by the time it blew into the Writers Guild Awards last night and came away with a win over “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook” for Best Adapted Screenplay, no one ought to have been shocked by the outcome.

The trajectory and tone of the season has been an epic arc for a film that first hit in the mountains of Colorado. Some might be bored or disappointed by its dominance on the circuit as of late, but that complaint could just as easily be placed on the amount of foreplay that has been manufactured in the run-up to the Academy Awards. There are many, many awards shows, and a lot of them poll large voting bodies. A film like “Argo” is going to succeed consistently in that environment. Each time the film has seemed on the outs, it has picked itself back up and shown that, indeed, it can still “surprise.”

So in this final pre-Oscar Off the Carpet column of the season, I submit that “Argo” hasn’t been a foregone conclusion. It hasn’t been a gargantuan awards player from the outset. The writing hasn’t been on the wall since Telluride. It had to beat a lot of odds along the way, and frankly, that’s been fun to watch. Whether it wins the Oscar on Sunday (which obviously seems likely) or loses it (anything apparently can and will happen this season and indeed, “Argo”‘s old Toronto foil, “Silver Linings Playbook,” has made a valiant phase two effort), the film will make history: No film has been this dominant on the guild circuit and lost the prize, while, again, only three other films have won Best Picture without a corresponding Best Director nomination.

If you look at the season in that light, maybe it’s not so boring after all. Even with win after win for the film as of late, maybe this has actually been the most exciting awards season in a long, long time.

I know it has been for me.

(Final predictions will take on a few forms this week. Greg will speak up in a final “Contender Countdown” tomorrow, while Guy and Gerard will have their say via “The Long Shot” and “Tech Support” on Wednesday and Thursday. A big piece featuring final calls from me, Greg and Guy will go up some time Thursday, while my picks will be reiterated on the podcast with Anne Thompson on Friday. So stay tuned throughout the week. We have a lot of coverage for you.)

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.

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