Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Can "Argo" Become a Timely Oscar Winner?

Update: I have posted a review for Argo here.

As I have stated previously, I believe that the Oscar Buzz season started with director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which managed to make a strong case for several major category nominations. However, it has been a few mild weeks since waiting for another nominee to get a wide release instead of just being the movie that critics rave about. This Friday sees the release of the highly acclaimed Argo, Ben Affleck's third directorial effort. With a stellar ensemble and the tagline "Based on a Declassified True Story," is Argo capable of giving Anderson some healthy competition for Best Picture?

Affleck isn't technically the new kid on the block when it comes to the Oscars. He won Best Adapted Screenplay for Good Will Hunting with co-star and co-writer Matt Damon. Since however, a string of bad moves has made him just seem like an average actor that only resurrected his career with a string of directorial efforts that have earned acting nominations: Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone and Jeremy Renner in The Town. This isn't the most impressive feat, but his work has become borderline nominated with those two efforts and it's quite possible he will finally get his spot.

I believe that The Town was at very least robbed of a Best Picture nomination in 2010. It may have been an overly Bostonian heist movie, but it still was an intense and fun movie that showed Affleck returning to form. With his follow-up, Argo, it is possible that he has paid his due and it is time to acknowledge that Affleck can make quality work.

The closest comparison I think comes from Robert Redford, who is another actor-turned-director. He headlined Oscar nominated features like The Sting, All the President's Men, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was more acclaimed than Affleck ever was, but his eventual turn to directing managed to lead to a Best Picture win for Ordinary People. That only lead to more nominations, including his work on Quiz Show. Of course, Redford's appeal came in the fact that he tackled human interest stories in painfully honest and realistic ways. 

Affleck is kind of doing that. While The Town may appear to be more thriller, it does have flawed characters at the core and shows a director who is steps away from making deep character studies. It eventually became one of the best pictures of the year with a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. With Argo, he tackles history with a plot that IMdB states:

"As the Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, a CIA 'exfiltration' specialist concocts a risky plan to free six Americans who have found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador."
What is not mentioned in the plot includes the plot in which Tony Mendez (Affleck) sets out to make a fake sci-fi movie to free the hostages. From the looks of the trailers available, this is a secret vice for numerous Oscar fields. The notable two are: political thrillers and movies about movies. If you don't believe me on the latter, please consider that last year's winner, director Michael Hazanavicius' The Artist was a throwback of sorts to the silent era of cinema that also served as a narrative about finding your voice. While it actually was the best movie of the year, along with Hugo, it was only proof that cinema means a lot to the Academy.

Left to right: Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck
This bias plays into Argo's favor. While the cinema lover aspect is a more recent trend, political thrillers have been a longstanding favorite of the Academy. While it hasn't been the prominent winner in recent years, nominees have included Michael Clayton, Frost/Nixon, and Babel. All of them have lost, but not without putting up fights in acting, writing, and technical fields. If Argo ends up being the front runner, it could signal a change for the genre and may lead to a new renaissance. Of course, the meshing of history and love of cinema may be the eventual factors to any success that it has.

This shouldn't be an issue, as the critical praise seems to be hinting that it will get a Best Picture slot. Of course, it may also play into the zeitgeist factor of being timely, as it could represent how the media impacts political events. This is a powerful message that films like director George Clooney's The Ides of March explored, but with lesser success. At most, Argo has to compete with being more than a timely film. It has to represent an idea that captures the Academy's interest. This will probably be movies.

Along with a supporting cast that includes Academy Award winner Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Richard Kind, and Bryan Cranston, this film doesn't have a cast as flashy as Les Miserables or as well established as The Master. However, this only adds to the underdog aspect that could help it come awards season. 

The biggest money as far as acting nominations will probably be on Affleck for Best Actor and Cranston for Best Supporting. Affleck has proven himself capable of leading a film, though has been buried from respect under the Bostonian pride angle. He hasn't obtained any acting nomination despite having been in Oscar-winning films like Shakespeare in Love. In this sense, he again feels like the underdog, and a nomination will solidify his ascent into the upper echelons of acting (though no word on if he will be good outside of his own movies). 

The reason that Cranston looks promising as Jack O'Donnell is that he is a talented actor. Having won three Emmys for his role on Breaking Bad, he is one of the most charismatic, thrilling performers of our time. This is sadly ignored because of his roles in films like Total Recall and John Carter, which were bad movies only helped by his second-tier role. Still, Affleck has gotten Jeremy Renner and Amy Ryan acting nominations, so there is some optimism that this will at very least get him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Political thrillers do well in this field, as it finally nabbed Tilda Swinton a Best Supporting Actress statue for Michael Clayton

If the movie ends up being a success, it could also land some nominations in Best Adapted Screenplay for Chris Terrio's script based on Joshua Bearman's "Escape from Tehran." This will be Terrio's highest profile gig to date. Of course, this will only be determined by how well current Oscar front runner Silver Linings Playbook does in the category. Last year's winner, The Descendants, was more of a drama and reflected on family issues, which is almost parallel to David O. Russell's new film, giving him the edge. Still, if Argo gains enough traction, this could be a surprise win.

Alan Arkin

The Best Picture category is the hardest to determine at this point. While it will be expected to at least get nominated, it is possible that the competition will be stiff. Possible competitors include Silver Linings Playbook, The Master (my current front runner), Les Miserables, and Cloud Atlas. While it will be the most diverse year in recent times, it also makes the playing field harder to navigate. Argo could be like The Social Network: a very timely look at how modern culture influences us, but loses to a period piece by Tom Hooper. My money is that Les Miserables, depending on how good it is, will sweep the awards simply because of the spectrum and ambitious nature of the musical. 

I am not expecting Argo to walk away empty handed, but I cannot think of a field where it is the clear favorite. Even in acting, I can see Affleck being up against The Master's Joaquin Phoenix (my current front runner), Lincoln's Daniel Day Lewis, and critics favorite and former Best Supprting Actor nominee (Winter's Bone), The Session's John Hawkes. If history has shown anything with awards, it is that damaged individuals play well. Hawkes is essentially acting with limited body movement, and it could be equivalent to something like the autistic Dustin Hoffman performance and Best Actor win in Rain Man. Even in Supporting Actor, it is hard to see Cranston stand a chance, as The Master's Philip Seymour Hoffman is sure to get a lot of momentum unless the Les Miserables ensemble blows us away.

It is too early to determine Argo's fate, but it does deserve to be considered given all of its highlights. Still, the field is really tough and even if this gets traction, it has to compete with everyone else, and Affleck, despite having won back in the 90's, is still the young face in a crowd of multiple-times nominees and a bigger bias of subject matter. Of course, if all of these other movies fail and leaves Argo shining bright, this could all be hearsay. However, as a political thriller, it should be happy to be nominated. The trick now is proving its merit.

Do you think that Argo can be the surprise hit at the Oscars this year? Does Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck stand a chance against the heavyweights, or is this just a chance for Affleck to register on their radar as a director with tastes? 

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