The Oscar balloting continues and with two weeks left before the voting ends, is being handicapped in the trades as though it were America’s second most important national election which, unless you’re a die-hard baseball fan voting early and often for hometown representation on the all-star team, it more or less is.
What’s interesting this year is the shift in the perceived front runner — there’s the simulated horse race of an actual campaign! “Zero Dark Thirty” racked up the early critics’ awards — the equivalent of winning the Iowa caucus — and promptly lost any chance of taking Best Picture once Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein threatened a Congressional investigation. (You can read my account of the movie’s political vicissitudes here.) “Lincoln” was not only beloved by Congress (or least Congressional Democrats) but made out well at the Golden Globes, a more dependable indicator of Oscar glory, not unlike the New Hampshire primary.
For what it’s worth, I still regard “Lincoln” as odds-on favorite to be anointed Best Picture but there’s no denying that the outpouring of love lavished on “Argo” by the Producers, Screen Actors, and today, the Directors Guilds (the equivalent of Super Tuesday) has roiled the race. Where “Zero Dark Thirty” is ambiguous in its view of the Bin Laden job, damaging to a sense of American exceptionalism and potentially embarrassing to the movie industry, “Lincoln” is an undeniably affirmative movie about American history and the American political process.
“Lincoln” is what Hollywood believes that Hollywood does best, and Steven Spielberg is certainly overdue for another Oscar, but “Argo” actually does “Lincoln” one better — featuring an unflappable CIA agent (played by director Ben Affleck) who coolly frees a gaggle of American hostages held in Tehran 1979 by passing them off as filmmakers scouting a non-existent project, thus turning the movie-making process itself into a redemptive historical triumph.
What’s more, “Argo” is also the anti “Zero Dark Thirty.” There’s no one calling for senate hearings here. Nor is the CIA acting to distance itself from the movie as the company’s acting director Michael Morell did with “Zero Dark Thirty,” explaining that while the agency “interacted with the filmmakers through our office of public affairs,” it did not control the final product. The movie, he stressed, “takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.” (This has not placated the Senate Intelligence Committee which is currently investigating the possibility that CIA personnel not only provided the filmmakers with classified information, but planted the notion that torture did work.)
No question but that the CIA thought Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s movie would be great PR. Writing in the Nashville Scene, Michael Sicinski critiqued “Zero Dark Thirty” as a CIA puff piece, presenting Jessica Chastain as the personification of plucky glamor and thus fostering “an unproblematic identification with both the CIA and the hunt for bin Laden” — something obscured, Sicinski writes, by the controversy over the use of torture. “We lose sight of the broader stakes, the ramification of the image Bigelow and Boal offer of the ‘new and improved’ CIA.”
“Argo,” which I dare say got a little help from the CIA as well, does an even better job of polishing the agency’s image. As reported by the Wall Street Journal last week, it’s even big (albeit bootlegged) in Tehran.