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And then a funny thing happened: Argo started winning awards. Lots of awards. Lots of important awards. Lots of important industry awards (re: people who will also be voting for The Academy Awards) that nobody was expecting it to win.
To date, Argo has won the Writers Guild of America award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cast from the Screen Actors Guild, both awards previously expected to go to Silver Linings Playbook. From the Producer's Guild? Best Picture. From the Director's Guild? Best Director: Ben Affleck - a move that can't help but be interpreted as an intentional corrective to the earlier snub. The Golden Globes (a joke of an award show, but often seen as a tastemaker's bellwether) gave it Best Picture: Drama and Best Director, so did The BAFTAs (rather unexpectedly) and The American Film Institute.
That's a murderer's row of gold statues, and it belies an emerging truth: Argo is now the presumed frontrunner for (and likely winner of) Best Picture at Sunday's Academy Awards. At this point, even if it doesn't win, a great number of people who try and guess at these things for a living, myself included (at least for one or two episode/articles a year) seriously missed the boat on this one.
How did that happen?
The math, to be certain, was theoretically sound: released too early, no director nomination, other competitors seemingly stronger, etc. If anything, it's likely that if Argo pulls it out this year en route to its true destiny as a TNT Network Sunday afternoon fixture for the rest of eternity things will snap back into place for next year and it will become another exception that proves the rule. But did we miss something? Yes, I think we did. I certainly did. In fact, I'd say there were two huge factors that should've been taken into account... and weren't.
Factor 1: Hollywood Still Loves America
Hollywood, as an industry, likes to think of itself as less a city/business/community in the U.S. and more like an extension of it. If America's self mythology of "exceptionalism" holds that the best and brightest from around the world strive to come here and to become Americans, Hollywood's self mythology is that the most exceptional Americans want to come there so that their talent and creativity can turn them into pop culture gods. While the notion of "liberal Hollywood" is, from my perspective, vastly overstated, it is a business largely made up of Americans who see themselves as Global Citizens representing the social/ideological cutting edge of The United States - Hollywood as "America: Just the Good Parts."
But that doesn't make it immune to the stirrings of good old fashioned patriotism, particularly in a year just after an election where one Barack Obama - the President most associated with the entertainment industry since at least Reagan and most associated with so-called "Hollywood values" ever - scored a dizzying knockout victory. The stars and stripes were flying high over the movie business when 2012 came to a close, and it's reflected by the presence of not one but four major Best Picture contenders (Django Unchained, Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty) being rooted in iconic American history and indeed American politics.
Once you start reading the tea leaves in the context of this being the year of "America: F*** Yeah!" at The Oscars, the question becomes which feature best captures that particular spirit. Django? Not quite - too dark, too mean. Zero Dark Thirty? Very possible, but probably has too much moral ambiguity about its own subject matter. Lincoln? Also possible, but it's talky for a long time en route to the big "Hell yeah, Thirteenth Ammendment!" payoff.
Argo, on the other hand? Argo is triumphant. Argo is exciting. Argo is fun, while also being smart, and grounds itself in a scenario where a little unapologetic "Yeah, we're pretty awesome" cheerleading feels appropriate - a good guy scoring a big win against bad guys, straight and simple.
Factor 2: Hollywood Still Loves Itself More
Let's not beat around the bush. The failure to acknowledge this part of the story qualifies as embarrassing negligence on my part and on the part of many others. At the end of the day, there are few things The Academy is more receptive to than being told how great they are (see: The Artist). And while Argo admirably avoids taking that part of its makeup to an extreme, it's very much still there.
It almost seems too simple a call to make, and yet so few made it. Hollywood can certainly appreciate films lionizing the heroism of Lincoln in ending slavery or the heroism of intelligence agencies in running down the mastermind of 9-11, but the movie where Hollywood itself is part of the Hero Team rescuing embattled innocents from hostage-hood? Of course they were going to love that. So why did we overlook it, for no better reason than the incidental lack of a secondary nod for its director?
One way or another, The Oscars air Sunday Night, at which point we'll find out how wrong I actually was.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.