Ben Affleck's Argo emerged from the Toronto Film Festival as virtually every pundit's Best Picture frontrunner, its grand reception topping off a heap of baity ingredients. This particular bit of groupthink is particularly disheartening, as those ingredients are, collectively, something Argo itself is never able to soar above. You know the mouthwatering pitch: Based on the impossible true story, this white-knuckle political thriller recounts the daring escape of six American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis. Produced by Academy Award winner George Clooney and Oscar nominee Grant Heslov, and directed by Academy Award winner Ben Affleck, who also stars, Argo is both a topical drama and a rousing crowd-pleaser. Which, of course, says nothing of the movie's juicy Hollywood ties, doubling as an offbeat slice of film-biz history wherein a C.I.A. specialist uses a faux sci-fi production as his rescue ruse. On paper, Argo reads like a dream project, and it certainly helps that Affleck stocks his cast with a fine mix of Oscar favorites and of-the-moment faces (alongside Alan Arkin are Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, and Chris Messina). This is a movie that drums up sight-unseen support, specifically for Affleck, who's been soldiering forth as a filmmaker and has finally made a film about something. It's a shame that what he's made also plays like a thin and shameless Oscar box-checker, and if it were to take the big prize, it'd only amplify the bemused awards-watcher's cynicism.
Chris Terrio is already considered a shoo-in for his Adapted Screenplay, which he culled from The Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez (Affleck's character) and Joshuah Bearman's Wired magazine article “The Great Escape.” With solid reviews from big-name critics like Roger Ebert, Owen Gleiberman, Todd McCarthy, and David Edelstein, Argo is poised to maintain much of its pre-release heat, and Terrio is sure to be among those who reap the benefits. He'll be lauded for marrying the worlds of espionage, cinema, and global affairs, painting each as an arena in which facades trump all. “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus,” Cranston's assistant deputy director tells Affleck's C.I.A. pointman. “I thought we did,” the spy replies on cue. “You want to come into Hollywood and act like a bigshot and not do anything?” John Goodman's makeup-artist insider asks. “You'll fit right in.” Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk—and on it goes. Goodman's character later quips that one “could teach a monkey to direct in a day,” at which point the film's Tinseltown-y self-deprecation becomes oddly and irreversibly self-congratulatory. That audiences aren't commenting more on the fact that Argo transparently panders to the Hollywood crowd is beyond this writer's comprehension, but, as Walter Cronkite says in one of the movie's countless newsreel clips, “that's the way it is.” And in the year following the awards season that showered love on films about films, from Hugo to The Artist, such lap-it-up enthusiasm may very well be the chief reaction among voters.
But one wonders if the pundit community isn't giving the voter community enough credit. It certainly makes sense that Argo would crack the Best Picture lineup, and a loaded denouement, complete with family-unit repair, side-by-side film still/photo comparisons, a Jimmy Carter voiceover, and trivia that relates Oscars to national honors, seems desperate to seal the deal. But betting on the love being spread a whole lot further seems a wee bit presumptuous. For instance, Arkin's portrayal of a crackpot producer, who's as vexingly one-dimensional as the other stateside supporting characters, shouldn't necessarily be shortlisted simply for being the loudest turn. Granted, Arkin clinched a Supporting Actor trophy in 2006 for playing another loud-mouthed, scene-stealing senior, but his Little Miss Sunshine character had pathos to match his gags, whereas his work in Argo is shrill, comedy-hour hokum. If this film is destined to yield a Supporting Actor candidate, better it be rising star Scoot McNairy, who'll also be bringing his gifts to Killing Them Softly, and leads one of Argo's better scenes as a reluctant escapee, explaining the fake film project to Iranian airport guards. Though Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, and Tate Donnovan nail some fine line deliveries, McNairy is perhaps the only actor to make a truly nuanced impact.
Boosting the likelihood of the film's Best Picture nod is a probable Editing nomination, as William Goldenberg (who also cut Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty) deserves some serious credit for helping to maintain the film's pacing, which admittedly helps the two-hour runtime rocket by in a flash. However anticlimactic the film's ending (Argo always feels like it's nearing a peak that never comes), the close of the second act is rather expertly spliced, making up for a string of events that, true or not, add up to a run-of-the-mill race against time. In a film that isn't likely to gather a whole lot of craft nods, Goldenberg looks like one of the few surefire technical honorees. And then there's Affleck, who, of course, is in line to score his first nomination as Best Director. Affleck proved with The Town that he's alarmingly adept at choreographing action, a skill that's also apparent in his latest, and on a broader scale. If nothing else, Argo is never without a vivid sense of place, and the period detail is especially outstanding. But time will tell if the number of voters ready to let Affleck join the club will trump the number of those miffed by Argo as a vanity project, which tends to pound its chest as pro-industry, pro-Affleck, and pro-American. Besides our own Andrew Schenker, few critics seem to be pointing out this film's dusty demonization of every Muslim face, an approach that seems to cater to paranoid nationalism just as plainly as the filmic aspect courts the showbiz set. It may be premature to call it the frontrunner, but Argo has at least become the most interesting horse to watch in this season's races. Regardless of what buzz and reviews are saying, its awards performance will prove or disprove just how predictable the Academy's choices are.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Editing; Best Adapted Screenplay, Chris Terrio.
Possibilities: Best Director, Ben Affleck; Best Supporting Actor, Alan Arkin.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, Scoot McNairy; Best Production Design.