I liken Ben Affleck’s direction of Argo to that of a monkey using a brush to paint a smiley face. For what I assume some of you might think are the “right” reason, that’s the worst comparison in the world. Affleck has proven himself as a skilled filmmaker both in front of and behind the camera, spinning webs of cinematic greatness whilst honing focused, almost dialectic perspective on his prior features based in Boston, a town he’s largely familiar with (he spent a great deal of his young life in Cambridge). Of course, I’m not likening Affleck’s aptitude to that of a zoo animal. I merely think it’s the reception of his latest work, however, that makes it hard to see him as anything but an awards season actor-turned-director spectacle. Something unexpected from an unexpected source (in this case, not an entirely unexpected source, just one on a much bigger scale than what we’re used to, considering Argo has grossed in upwards of $100 million).
It’s hard to not compare Affleck’s awards season run these past few months to that of Kathryn Bigelow’s during the 2009-10 pre-Oscar period. Bigelow’s nomination and subsequent win for Best Director not only marked the Academy’s first official recognition of a woman in that category, but, for me, cemented the Academy’s existence as a purely cyclical machine of self-generating, self-whoring, pathetically pandering publicity. I assume this isn’t a surprise to many. I just wasn’t so readily accepting of Bigelow’s triumph that year as the rest of Hollywood seemed to be. At every commercial break, I recall the announcer touting the category for all it was worth: “Will Kathryn Bigelow become the first ever female to win for Best Director? Find out in thirty minutes.” Her gender became the go-to talking point of that year’s Oscars. Does that make her any less worthy? In some cases, yes. The Academy, perhaps nominating her based on merit alone, placed her there in a collective vote. But, her gender was marketed and exploited to generate hype which would eventually become self-fulfilling. In essence, her gender was her defining trait that night (It’s also interesting to note that Bigelow was given the cold shoulder from the Academy this year, indicating that the initial excitement of decorating a woman who directed a decent film four years ago has long since worn off).
While Affleck possesses little in the way of such “unique” aspects to define his presence on the awards circuit, his actor-turned-director status as well as his general likeability within the industry undoubtedly contributed to his name being thrown around this Oscar season. Alas, he wasn’t nominated in the category he was (at one time) largely expected to win (or at least give Steven Spielberg a run for his money). So, what went wrong? It’ll be interesting to see how Affleck’s combined Oscar snub/Globes takeover plays itself out, seeing as (as much as I don’t want to admit it) the earlier-than-usual deadline for Academy nomination ballots most likely played a huge factor in his lack of a nomination.
The Globes usually hold little influence over the direction of awards season. They rarely have power to dictate what gets nominated at the Oscars, but often reaffirm the direction Academy members should take as they cast their ballots by reflecting what countless other guilds, critics circles, and Oscar season awards shows already have. Since Oscar voters weren’t able to see who won at the Golden Globes before voting, a very prominent piece of the usual awards season puzzle was missing. I’m not saying the Globes and Academy are mutually operational, it’s just that Affleck’s “snub” seems too huge to ignore when Argo gobbled up major accolades on Sunday (Affleck won for Direction, the film won in the dramatic category). If the timetable for the Globes ceremony and Oscar voting was “normal” this year, I think we’d be looking at a very different Oscar picture, one that included a lot more Ben Affleck and a lot less Benh Zeitlin.
So, does Globes success bode well for Argo at the Oscars? Maybe. Arguably, Argo is a more, how shall I put this, “worldy” film than Oscar juggernaut (and current frontrunner for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor) Lincoln, its appeal stronger as a “Globes” film than an “Academy” film. The Academy will most likely still side with Spielberg, but the outpouring of anger from various Oscar pundits, critics, and general audiences alike has me infinitely baffled. It’s one thing to create something new out of source material as David O. Russell did with Silver Linings Playbook. It’s another to competently direct a glorified Wikipedia article, which is exactly what Argo is. It’s universally appealing, superficially suspenseful, reaffirming of traditional American values (that last shot? Come on.), and ultimately an adequate procedural. Argo does what it needs to do; it tells a fascinating story. It doesn’t however, take a historical occurrence and give it a “new” face for the medium as, say, The Impossible has done with its retelling of the events surrounding the 2004 tsunami. The Impossible uses the frame of true events to tell a much larger, cinematically rich story, making connections a simple A-leads-to-B recreation can’t. And that, my friends, is a choice of direction. Although, it’s unfair to hate a film for what it hasn’t accomplished, for what it hasn’t done, and what it is not.
If anything, the HFPA’s love for Argo could very well act as a major catalyst for the first write-in Oscar since Hal Mohr’s win for Best Cinematography in 1935. Is it allowed right now? Nope. But, there’s buzz within the industry that that’s just what Academy voters are planning to do for Affleck, but I’m not so certain the push is strong enough to overthrow Spielberg’s current position out front, or to warrant a compete overhaul of voting rules since write-in voting hasn’t been allowed for decades. For starters, Argo isn’t exactly filmmaking of the highest order–even its most vocal supporters would agree to that. It’s certainly not a film that will define an era as, say, films like Citizen Kane or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s not a monumental achievement for the medium, and certainly not worthy of taking away recognition from the likes of Zeitlin, Lee, and Russell. People seem to be more frustrated that their predictions were off thanks to one-two sucker punch snubs of two early Oscar frontrunners. At most, Argo has the potential to gain some sympathy votes in the Best Picture category, making it a viable contender to take on Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, the latter of which I think is poised to upset as well (the power of Weinstein got Jacki Weaver and David O. Russell surprise nominations in their respective categories. It can’t be denied).
I just so desperately want to think of Ben Affleck as a brush-equipped platypus or sloth; now that’s impressive.