Hollywood has always thrilled at its power to pluck a Lana Turner from the soda fountain at Schwab's, but it takes onanistic pleasure in the dark side of its hype machine, too: how believing too much in Tinseltown's promises can transform nobodys into somebodies—Monroe, Harlow, Dean, and, even worse, poor anonymous never-weres like Peg Entwhistle, the frustrated actress who suicidally leaped off the H of the Hollywoodland sign in 1932. (Rather than die instantly, she bled to death from a broken pelvis. This town doesn't cut anyone a break.)
Most movies about Hollywood's illusion factory lie somewhere between self-flagellatingly critical and winkingly celebratory:The Player, Sunset Blvd.. Get Shorty, Barton Fink, Boogie Nights, Ed Wood, The Stunt Man, Singin' In The Rain, Tropic Thunder, Bowfinger, LA Confidential. There are some notable exceptions, such as Adaptation (reality can't be shoehorned into art, and certainly not into movies) or Sullivan's Travels (legitimate pleasure in movies is a noble pursuit), but most others hold true to playwright Wilson Mizner's adage that life in Hollywood is "a trip through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat."
Despite its ambiguity about the Hollywood hype machine, the Academy's sentiments about the hard work of making art is completely unambiguous. Ray, Shine, Precious, Atonement, Hustle And Flow—it celebrates films affirming the redemptive power of creative craft, and how devoting oneself to its difficult demands is a way into a better life. (Part of the 2010 Oscar Best Picture race was between films declaring that devoting oneself to a difficult craft will save you (The King's Speech) vs. devoting oneself to a difficult craft will destroy you (Black Swan). The King's Speech won.)
In 2012, both Silver Linings Playbook and Argo were up for Best Picture, and any smart bettor would have fingered Silver Linings Playbook as the shoo-in because of its "art saves all" theme—how a recently released mental patient (Bradley Cooper) and a grieving temptress (Jennifer Lawrence) heal themselves through ballroom dancing. Argo's got no art, just a bunch of hype conjured up by a CIA agent (Ben Affleck) and a pair of weary Hollywood old-timers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) looking to spring some hostages with a story about a non-existent movie. "Art saves" vs. "Hype saves" is no contest—but, strangely, the Academy didn't see it that way.
Wink-wink movies about the illusory nature of Hollywood are nothing new. When Gene Kelly crows at the end of Singin' In The Rain "Stop that girl! That girl running up the aisle! That's the girl whose voice you heard!" it's a moment of triumph: the illusion factory drops its veil to celebrate the creators at the core. However, when you drop Argo's veil and there's nothing there. We're not even going to pretend anymore, the Academy announced. Sixty years after Singin’, Argo's Best Picture win legitimized the triumph of hype over art. It announced a new era of Hollywood sociopathy, where not even style replaces substance: lies replace style replace substance, and you're expected to nod and smile all the way to the box office as your hand closes on a fistful of air.
But come on, you say, lives were saved. Doesn't that justify a certain kind of noble falsehood, like in 1997's Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful, where a father's perverse recasting of a concentration camp as game show enables his son to escape with hope unscathed? Or Schindler's List, where a German businessman conceives of a semi-truthful scheme to save Jews in his employ? Or The Counterfeiters, where a group of concentration camp inmates survive by making fake money? Or Jakob the Liar, where a Jewish man keeps hope alive in the ghetto by making fabulous stories about the messages he hears on a secret radio—and then succors the audience with an alternate, sunnier ending?
The common denominator of all those movies is that they are Holocaust survival stories. When Argo shamelessly borrows that "noble falsehood" genre blueprint, it brings the same invisible weight to a story completely unconnected to the Holocaust. It makes clear exactly what we're supposed to think about the movie's Middle Eastern villains, while deftly sidestepping any accusations of making a movie about Nazis in keffiyeh.
But if the villains in Argo are really Nazis, then what does that make our heroes? Argo's borrowing of the "noble Holocaust deception" genre requires the appointment of Hollywood as a sovereign Jewish nation, a connection that's irresponsible at best and slanderous at worst. And in addition, the surrogate Jews escape at the end because of cunning, justifiable lies, and the illusion-casting power of Hollywood in their back pocket—an unflattering toolkit that harkens back to anti-Semitic canards about how Jews do business and who really runs Hollywood.
Argo is dishonest and shameful for the way it privileges hype over art. But its willingness to cloak itself in the horror of the Holocaust for sheer narrative convenience, as well as to milk racist reactions on both sides of the conflict between the Jewish and Muslim worlds for emotional resonance, proves it's the most morally bankrupt movie to ever win Best Picture. It's more than dishonest. It's dangerous, and awarding it Best Picture showed a lack of concern about the parallels Hollywood is drawing when we're at war with the Middle East. Worse, it remains to be seen if upcoming releases like Edge of Tomorrow, Elysium, or the reboot of Robocop—all pure entertainment, none legitimized as lauding true historical events like Argo—are going to play faster and looser with those parallels in their own metaphorical war landscapes. And considering the vociferous response to Argo in Iran (the movie is banned, and a feature The General Staff is being planned as a rebuttal), those won't go ignored, either. The only response to the poisonous era Argo's Best Picture win has possibly ushered into American moviemaking is its own oft-repeated refrain: "Argo fuck yourself."
Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.