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The State of the Race: Why Argo Keeps Winning


When Argo beat Silver Linings Playbook for Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards last night, an award that movie should have had in a walk, and Lincoln took home two SAG Awards for its pair of actors (it was only expected to take one) it suddenly became obvious that a three-way split is going on in the awards race and Argo is benefiting from it.

This is somewhat reminiscent of 2010: it wasn’t The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network. It was The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network vs. Black Swan vs. The Fighter.  Each film represented a specific group, or type of person, if you will.  And none of those voting blocks could be convinced to drop their support of the one they loved and affix it to the only one that could have beaten The King’s Speech. Moreover, in that type of scenario, LEAST OFFENSIVE wins the day. No one hates Argo.

Once Zero Dark Thirty was no longer the critics’ favorite shiny new toy, they switched their support to Argo.  Once they did that, it won the BFCA and the Globe and then PGA and then SAG.  That is quite a winning streak for a late in the game play, one that can only be attributed to the lethal combination of a likable film, a least offensive film, and a charming actor/director whom the Academy snubbed.  It is all very much playing out the way Apollo 13 played out, and if Affleck now wins the DGA, as all of my pundit pals are predicting, it will match Apollo 13 almost exactly (Apollo 13 did not win the Globe for Director, Mel Gibson did).

Let’s remember back to our experiment with Rotten Tomatoes.   That site isn’t really great for figuring out positive reviews, but it is really great for figuring out divisive films.  The reason for this is that they don’t hand out their rotten tomatoes easily. It has to be a pretty bad review to be called rotten.  When we did the experiment, we saw it played out this way:

Amour–11 rotten
Argo–11 rotten
Zero Dark Thirty — 14 rotten
Silver Linings Playbook — 16 rotten
Lincoln — 21 rotten
Beasts of the Southern wild — 25 rotten
Life of Pi – 25 rotten
Django Unchained–26 rotten
Les Miserables — 63 rotten

Flashback to 2010
The Social network-11 rotten
The King’s Speech–12 rotten
The Fighter–22 rotten
Black Swan — 34 rotten
Inception–39 rotten

Since 2012, we have become much more polarized in our thinking. We do tend to take sides.  But in a scenario where there are competing films, the one that people hate the least wins. It’s the Argo adage of “this is the best bad idea we have.” And it explains the Oscar race probably better than anything else ever has.  Argo fans are fans that didn’t like any of the other films — either they liked Zero Dark Thirty and then got spooked, so those voters fled to the safety of Argo’s arms, or they just genuinely liked the film best. But you can’t talk Lincoln fans into voting for Argo and you can’t talk Argo fans into voting for Lincoln.  Meanwhile, Silver Linings Playbook has strong enough support that it divides the votes further.


If it were Lincoln vs. Argo I really believe Lincoln, the masterpiece, the one that has made $167 million and has the most nominations, plus a director nomination, would win. But in our divisive culture, with so many other strong films pulling, it becomes a King’s Speech scenario where it’s Argo vs. Lincoln vs. Silver Linings Playbook vs. Life of Pi (those are the three DGA and Oscar nominees for Best Director).

The competing films represent three distinct demographics, and added to complicate things further, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables and Django Unchained, to say nothing of the Oscar race when Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild are thrown into the mix.  Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook are films people react to emotionally. Lincoln is a film people react to occasionally emotionally but more often than not, intellectually.  Argo kind of has it all, it’s a one-size-fits-all movie.  So then you have to wonder, why the director snub?

What to watch for:

Ballots have already been turned in for the Writers Guild. But if Argo manages to upset Lincoln in the adapted screenplay, where Tony Kushner has written a screenplay so artful, with such profound depth, then you will see Argo doing more than just what Apollo 13 did. It will already have one more prize that Apollo 13 when it wins the Editors Guild prize; Braveheart had won both the WGA and the Eddie that year.

Apollo 13 and Argo are very similar. Both had veteran actors and newbies. Both were directed by the most likable guy in town, an actor-turned-director. Both are “important” films about American history about heroes who were never allowed to take credit.  Apollo 13 was about a failed mission, but a hero emerged.  Argo is about a successful mission, a hero emerged. Neither of those heroes got their proper due. Perhaps both Ron Howard and Ben Affleck can relate — they both had to finally make a movie industry voters could handle before they started getting recognition; Ben Affleck’s two previous films were far more artistically daring but Argo does what neither of them could do: appeal generally across the board.   Ron Howard had directed Cocoon, Splash, and Parenthood by the time he finally got “serious” with Apollo 13.

Both of them had to fight hard to be respected and both are nice, nice guys — actors from the old days who paid their dues.  So naturally when the directors branch in the Academy decided that neither film was worthy of a Best Director nomination, the whole industry threw their support around Ron Howard, and the whole industry has thrown their support now around Ben Affleck.

What remains to be seen is whether Argo can do what Apollo 13 could not: overcome not having a Best Director nomination.

The only other director who won the DGA but wasn’t nominated for Best Director was, funnily enough, Steven Spielberg.  Spielberg is not an actor. He doesn’t have the nice guy charm that plays well in front of a crowd. He’s a film nerd.  His enthusiasm is in his work, not his personality.  But he also had to fight long and hard for respectability and when he was shut out for The Color Purple there was a similar wave of support.  The Best Picture prize ultimately went to Sidney Pollack and Out of Africa.

Why does the director nomination matter so much? I will be writing a DGA preview later today so I’ll hold off on specifics of what I’ll say later, but for now I’ll just say this.   There are usually two kinds of films that do well in the Oscar race. Those that are director-driven and those that aren’t.    As good as Ben Affleck is, Argo isn’t a director-driven film. It is a film people like across the board — anyone can sit down and watch that movie and enjoy it.  Does it set the world on fire? No. Is it a visionary masterpiece? Nope. Is it a movie you can dive back into and discover something new each time? No.  But it doesn’t matter because it’s a comfortable fit in a contentious year where so many greater visionary works are splitting up the vote.

As you can see by the critics top ten of the top tens, they liked Argo but it wasn’t in their top five — which begs the question, how did it manage to suddenly start winning critics awards? Well, it was the best bad idea they had:


When you get to the Oscars you will likely be dealing with a different tool kit.  Voters will still split up in different ways.  But this time, you really have only two directors who were also nominated for the DGA — Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, funnily enough. Both directors lost big at past Oscar upsets when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain and Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan.   If you think Argo is going to win Best Picture without a director nomination the next thing you have to do is figure out who is going to win Best Director.

Since Argo will have to make history to win (in several different ways, the least of which is the lack of a director nomination), it’s possible either Ang Lee or Spielberg could lose the DGA and still win the Oscar. For some reason I think if Spielberg loses the DGA he can’t then win the Oscar.

Argo will win a few more awards coming up.  It will very well likely win the BAFTA — hell, they liked Argo so much they even nominated Ben Affleck for Best Actor.  It will get yet another momentum bump there.  And Ben Affleck, snubbed director made good, will probably win the DGA.

At the end of the day you are wise to continue on with the general consensus and choose Affleck for the DGA and Argo for Best Picture. I myself still believe that sooner or later voters will come to their senses and realize that Lincoln is the best film of 2012 and will reward it. I also think that neither Lincoln, Life of Pi nor Silver Linings Playbook are dead for Best Picture. Why? They all have director nominations.

Directors Guild preview coming later today.