Off the Carpet: The long, strange trip of 'Argo'
The epic journey of Ben Affleck's "Argo" began at the Telluride Film Festival in September. After a couple of years of pandering a bit by accepting Toronto-bound Oscar bait in the form of films like "Black Swan," "The Descendants" and "127 Hours," and then bizarrely bemoaning the surge in awards coverage they yielded, the festival's directors pulled back over the last two years, retreating to their former identity of carefully curating selections from international festivals. But they nevertheless left room for one "Sneak Preview" on the line-up this time around, and that film was "Argo."
The film blew the roof off at its first screening there for patrons of the festival and attending press. A burst of applause hit at the film's oft-discussed airport climax and the stage was set for an Oscar thoroughbred to find its way through the season. But there were still six whole months in the season left to go. And no one wants to be a frontrunner too early for too long.
Soon enough, another film would join the conversation, as David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and delighted audiences there. But "Argo" still had plenty to offer as it had its "official" premiere at the fest, duking it out with Russell's film for the coveted Audience Award.
"Argo" would ultimately yield that prize to Harvey Weinstein's primped and prepared contender, and it would also weather its first dose of controversy. Canadians weren't pleased with perceived insinuations that their government's hand in what was, after all, called "The Canadian Caper" was more superficial than the history had suggested. Affleck and Warner Bros. handled it swiftly and gracefully, adding a card at the end of the film for clarification, and the dust-up stretched no further than the Toronto city limits.
Lucky for "Argo" and "Silver Linings Playbook," Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" still had the onus of Oscar heavy. Sight-unseen, the film was an on-paper sure thing. Films like "Anna Karenina," "The Master" and "Cloud Atlas" played at the fest but were quickly regarded as uphill battles for Oscar. The sense was that we hadn't seen our Best Picture winner yet and, again, there was so much more around the corner.
The next stop of the season was the New York Film Festival. Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" would become an instant player as the opening night film, a visual wonder from a respected filmmaker. But ahead of its "official" AFI Fest bow, "Lincoln" would pop up as a surprise screening at the fest like "Hugo" last year. Finally gracing the season with its presence, it was a long breath of a film, a studied consideration of the 16th President's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. It wasn't the expected Spielberg. It was contained. Indeed, the reserve even stretched to the work of composer John Williams. But while the sight-unseen frontrunner had finally landed, few were ready to concede it the victory just yet, even if a boatload of nominations were surely expected.
There were still more films to come, and after the Thanksgiving holiday, they would hit the ground running. "Les Misérables" was the first to come out of hiding, premiering to a New York audience full of guild and Academy members. And it couldn't have played better: applause throughout, crying, rave responses. One would be forgiven for thinking we had a Best Picture frontrunner on our hands, particularly with such a given as the Best Supporting Actress winner appearing clear as day. Further screenings on the west coast would begin to add nuance to the overall reaction as a great many critics, foreshadowing the overall critical reception to the film, took umbrage with the film's aesthetic. Nevertheless, the Broadway adaptation had more than its fair share of fans in the industry and was poised to be a big Oscar player.
"Les Mis" would have its moment for a time, but then Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" would steal its thunder and really make an impact. Seemingly starving for something this heady after the gooey "Les Misérables," the critics took to it like red meat. The film landed the weekend after "Les Mis" did and seemed to kill two birds with one stone: It presented itself as a drier, more journalistically minded and therefore "more important" CIA thriller alternative to "Argo" and, via star Jessica Chastain, muscled (for a time) Jennifer Lawrence out of frontrunner spot for Best Actress she had held since "Silver Linings Playbook" hit Toronto over two months prior. It seemed like it could be an awards juggernaut, but would it be too cold and distanced for Academy members to embrace it?
Whether it would or wouldn't, the first batch of precursor groups were enamored with their shiny new play thing. The New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review crowned it the year's best as December rolled around, thought the Los Angeles Film Critics Association would stick up for (somewhat futilely) "The Master" and (as perhaps a saving grace) "Amour." But controversy was awaiting Kathryn Bigelow's film, and particularly, Mark Boal's journalistic efforts behind it.
Senators in Washington, in a bold, unprecedented move, not only took the film to task for what they viewed as a pro-torture argument, but instructed the filmmakers to alter content they felt indicated that key information in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was directly obtained via torture, or, "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Whether "Zero Dark Thirty" could have survived the season en route to a Best Picture win without this controversy is up for debate. But it was very late in gearing up a proper awards campaign and it was wholly unprepared to deal with the nuance lost in the debate. Damage was surely done, but the level to which that damage truly mattered to the opinions of artists is, again, debatable.
As more and more regional critics groups began to speak up, the scales shifted. But they didn't shift to "Life of Pi" or "Lincoln" or the other films that had shown up in the interim since the Telluride Film Festival. They shifted to the one film seemingly elbowed out of the way by all of the season's comers. They shifted to "Argo." And they would stay there, though not without a scare.