Oscars in Review: ‘Argo' win was inevitable but mediocre

by Varun Bhuchar | 2/25/13 11:00pm

The last time the Academy and I kind of agreed on a Best Picture winner was when the exciting and timely "The Hurt Locker" (2009) won over the visually impressive but wholly unoriginal "Avatar" (2009). Since then, I've watched the Academy give its most prestigious award to films that can be considered inferior in retrospect. After all, when was the last time you popped in "The King's Speech" (2010) for fun? Would you have bothered with "The Artist" (2011) if it were made in color and with sound? These questions should make you think about how the Academy operates in giving its top prize to a film that is considered safe but fails the ultimate test of time. "Argo" (2012) continues this streak of comparative mediocrity after it walked away with the best picture at the 85th Academy Awards on Sunday.

After winning nearly every guild award under the sun, "Argo"'s win was inevitable. Set during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, it is the story of a clandestine CIA mission to save six American diplomats who are hiding in the Canadian ambassador's house under the guise of scouting a science-fiction film in Iran. It is a plot that seems like it would be at home at any good espionage thriller. However, "Argo" manages to take an exciting event mired in complex historical context and turn it into a two-hour patriotic feel-good fest. Now, there's nothing wrong with films that set out to do this, but "Argo" is so saccharine, so non-offensive and so inconsequential in the scheme of things that its message becomes nauseating. The blame for this lies solely with its director, Ben Affleck.

Affleck is a long way from "Gigli" (2002), the notorious box office bomb that nearly killed his career. Since then, he's become one of the most respected directors in Hollywood after the critical and commercial success of his first two films, "Gone Baby Gone" (2007) and "The Town" (2010). I, however, do not share this sentiment and "Argo" did nothing to change my opinion of Affleck's directorial ability.

Two much lauded qualities of the film are the opening scene, which depicts the storming of the embassy, and the climax. Both been praised for their suspense and realism; I for the life of me cannot understand why. The opening suffers from a case of awful pacing. After the fifth shot of people shredding documents, I found myself checking my watch to make sure that time was in fact moving forward, and that I had not been sucked into some awful "Groundhog Day" (1993) vortex where I would be forced to watch an embassy siege for the rest of eternity. The film's climax is perhaps the only time I can remember literally rolling my eyes at something, as six plot points converged at once in a manner not seen outside of some farcical comedy from the '60s.

Yet I could forgive all of that if it weren't for the fact that "Argo" commits the egregious sin of being completely irrelevant. Its portrayal of America as good and Iran as bad does nothing to assuage the already high tensions between our nations, and its glorification of Hollywood reeks of the same self-congratulatory behavior that the Academy would reward without question in the past.

So why did "Argo" walk away with the big prize? Many point to Affleck's directing snub as the reason for the enormous outpouring of support the film received in the final stretch of Oscar season. If that claim is true, then its victory is an even dumber move than I previously thought. This reasoning is made all the more ironic because it is the directors' branch of the Academy that nominates the directors for the award. If Affleck's peers, the directors he so badly wants to be compared against, didn't deem him worthy to receive an award that rests on how well one man steered a film to completion, then what does that say about their general opinion of "Argo"?

Indeed, the highlight in a dismal broadcast that saw Daniel Day-Lewis steal Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar and Jennifer Lawrence win hers for an unworthy role was Ang Lee's win for "Life of Pi" (2012). "Life of Pi" was not my first choice to win best picture: that would have been "Django Unchained" (2012), a close second. Lee's masterful direction of a beautiful tale will be remembered more often than whatever Affleck tried to accomplish with "Argo."

"Argo" is currently playing at the Nugget.