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Five Years Later, Did ‘Argo’ Deserve to Win Best Picture?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Every time there’s a new announcement about the Avatar sequels (so once every ten days), a ripple of “Heh, remember Avatar?!” jokes reverberate through Twitter. Upon the most recent occurrence of this phenomenon, some users fairly countered that the constant jokes about not remembering Avatar are their own form of remembering Avatar, and that besides, you’re a dang liar if you claim not to remember the part where they ride the dragons. That’s cinema!

For a more illustrative example of how pernicious memory can be to the movies, let us turn instead to another project that the monoculture assured us was a huge part of the pop-cultural zeitgeist. And least in measurable terms, Argo was a hit upon its release in 2012; with a $232 million domestic gross on a $44.5 million budget, it was a highly visible example of the original mid-range studio pictures we critics love to worry aren’t getting made anymore. Warner Bros.’ PR department managed to force “Ar-go f— yourself!” into catchphrase-hood for a hot second, and a combination of very specific factors — perhaps the same factors that effectively rendered Argo memory-proof — earned the film something even Avatar couldn‘t land: a Best Picture Oscar.

Every year, someone has to re-state this point for all the readers who are only now taking an interest in Oscar prognostication, but it being October, perhaps I’ll be the first in 2017: The distinction of “Best Picture” rarely goes to the picture that is best, and instead tends to go to the picture that plays to the widest swath of Academy tastes. But because Most Broadly Palatable Picture doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and Most Aggressively Marketed Picture even less so, a highly arbitrary collection of qualities have begun to stand in as a shorthand for the Academy’s concept of excellence, many of which Argo happened to fulfill.

Voters tend to smile kindly on films about the hectic magic of moviemaking, films with a topical bent that don‘t step on any toes, and actor-driven vehicles that let movie stars be movie stars. Argo is all three. Ben Affleck couldn‘t have reverse-engineered a more likely Oscar horse if he had actually tried, and God knows there are people out there trying every year to do just that. In the strange-but-true story of one unlikely CIA extraction operation, director-star Affleck found a project that could cast him as a troubled hero, nobly doing the dangerous work for the sake of his family and country. (Never mind that Tony Mendez, the real-life operative Affleck portrayed, was of Mexican-American descent.) He found a project that touched upon tensions in the Middle East with its Iran Hostage Crisis setting, but never commented in any way pointed enough to alienate any viewers. And above all else, he found a project that positioned Hollywood as making a difference and saving the day.

Whether this film is truly “best,” whether it outdoes the unhinged Western revisionism of Django Unchained, or Amour’s fearless confrontation with death, or the imperfect American mythmaking of Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln, could very well remain the subject of debate. What’s now clear, and what matters most of all, is that no one cares enough to do so.

Argo
Warner Bros.

The Academy tends to reward films that a lot of people like over those that a few people really love. But it’s the latter category that often stands the test of time. Films that light a fire in their audience — whether that’s inspiring love or outright derision — get thought about, talked about, and remembered far longer than those that perform respectably and then politely excuse themselves. If a film can inspire obsession in a devout few, they will proselytize about it to anyone who will listen. So begins a fanbase.

Argo is instead destined to be the Chester A. Arthur of the Oscars, unmemorable save for one distinguishing detail. Where America’s 21st President had his robust muttonchops-mustache combo, Argo has Ben Affleck. Devoid of any arrestingly personal material that might closely endear it to viewers, the film exists now primarily as a peak in the currently nosediving roller coaster that is Affleck’s life. It’s more of a case study or teachable moment than entertainment, useful more for clinical observation than enjoyment.

Memory’s a fickle mistress, as we all learned from Memento (which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture). The human brain isn’t designed to internalize superficial particulars like character names or the cohesive beats of a plot. (Not incidentally, the latter is the main pleasure of Argo, watching all the puzzle pieces of a well-planned heist fall into place.) Moments stick with a viewer, much in the same way we’ll remember specific tableaux from our dreams even when we can‘t recall anything else. Argo fails to deliver any lines of dialogue or shots that have that instant-classic feeling, the gleam that a viewer immediately knows they’ll think about for a long time to come. To paraphrase a friend: Just because a movie is about the magic of movies, that doesn‘t mean it’s guaranteed to make any of its own.

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