You heard it here first: Argo is almost certain to win best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday, having racked up wins at the AFI Awards, the BAFTAs, the Director’s Guild Awards, the Golden Globes, the Producer’s Guild Awards, the SAG Awards, and the Writer’s Guild Awards. But it won’t do so because it’s a solid, competent procedural drama, or because it features solid, competent acting, or because it is scripted with solid, competent writing. It will do so because Hollywood loves films about films.
The "Canadian Caper"—the rescue of six American embassy workers who holed up in the Canadian embassy when Iranian "students" overran the United States outpost in Tehran and took its staff hostage—was a small swell in an overwhelming sea of lows during the Iranian hostage crisis. In order to ex-filtrate the Americans, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) concocted an audacious plan: He posed as a movie producer, flew into Tehran with cover stories for the sextet he was trying to save, and flew them all to freedom, while avoiding a radical regime eager to hang Americans in the streets.
First, though, the fake movie producer needed a fake movie to produce. He needed Argo.
Enter Hollywood makeup legend John Chambers (John Goodman), who puts Mendez in touch with a well-heeled and patriotic producer by the name of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). The trio purchases the rights to a Star Wars-knockoff called Argo, rents office space in Hollywood, and begins generating press buzz to prove their project is legitimate.
Argo’s most entertaining sequences are set in Hollywood as Mendez learns to negotiate the entertainment industry. The banter is witty—"You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day," Goodman’s character tells Affleck’s with a sense of irony. Watching Arkin bluster his way through the proceedings never fails to amuse. "If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!" he yells at one point. "You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA," he warns at another.
Argo is a picture about pictures. It’s a movie enraptured by the power of images. That is driven home during a sequence in which a live-read of the script for Argo, put on for the benefit of the trade rag Variety, is crosscut with images of Iranian radicals broadcasting boasts and taunting the Great Satan on television. Then the revolutionary rhetoric about oppressed peoples is crosscut, in turn, with images of mock executions of the American embassy workers.
This love of imagery—as well as the film’s generally self-congratulatory attitude toward Hollywood—is why Argo is likely to take home Hollywood gold on Sunday. Movie people love to honor movies about movies and movies about artists. That’s why the decidedly mediocre The Artist won last year, and it’s why the decidedly mediocre Shakespeare in Love won in 1998. That’s why Hugo and Ray and The Aviator and Lost in Translation and Bugsy and All That Jazz and A Star is Born all nabbed best picture nominations.
While Argo is a fine picture—an entertaining and propulsive movie that is by turns humorous and rousing and enraging—it is far from the best film released this year. It’s not even really the best film about films this year: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a sly commentary on Hollywood’s history of confederate nostalgia, and as a celebration of the spaghetti western is both more entertaining and more intelligent than Affleck’s film.
But, as we shall see this weekend, sly criticism is no match for triumphant bombast.