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Analyze This: Why 'Argo' Won Best Picture, Ang Lee Won Best Director & More 2013 Oscar Fallout

by Rodrigo Perez
February 26, 2013 12:42 PM
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Argo, Affleck, Best Picture, Oscars 2013 (skip)

One could suggest that we and other pundits have exhausted the conversation around the 85th Academy Awards. We might not argue with that, but while we've had plenty of opportunities to examine the surprises, the snubs, the show itself, both its best/worst moments and how it can improve, we personally haven't looked closely at why the outcomes landed where they did (you can see the full list of winners here). And now that the dust has settled, we wanted to analyze why "Argo" won Best Picture and take a general deeper dive into some of the winners.

So, why did the part-dramatic-CIA-nail-biter, part-Hollywood-satire and part-‘70s-political-thriller-homage win Best Picture over all comers? Well, as always, there were several factors at play.

Affleck, Argo
The Ben Affleck Sympathy Card
As you know by now, Affleck has gone from mid-aughts US Weekly punchline to one of today's most celebrated mainstream American directors. Hollywood adores a second act story, and this narrative alone would be enough to play out a great arc as to why the actor-turned-filmmaker would win the Best Director prize. But of course, even before that narrative had a chance to become fully exploited, a curveball arrived: Affleck (like Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino) was snubbed for a Best Director nomination. And almost before anyone could claim major outrage, Affleck started winning some key Best Director awards on the road to the Oscars (Golden Globes, Critics Choice) and then went on to win even more (including Oscar's best augur, the Director’s Guild Award). The conventional wisdom is that to reward his snub for Best Director, "Argo" won Best Picture as a corrective. While that's the tidy version of the narrative, that's hardly the full story. Sympathy will only take you so far, as Emmanuelle Riva and Robert De Niro can both attest. There has to be more for an Oscar.

The Academy's Conservative Autocorrecting In Lieu Of A Clear Winner
Consensus years are the norm at the Academy Awards. Look through the pages of Oscar and you'll see lots of big sweeps with 6 or more Oscar wins (“The Hurt Locker” in 2010, “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009) and when the wins number 5 (like “The Artist” in 2012), often those movies are still taking all the key awards like Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actor. The Academy as a collective body works best when it has a clear consensus of what it’s going to rally behind. However, when the Academy is confused about what to do, and no clear winner has emerged, you get an ugly, messy year like 2005 in which “Crash” took Best Picture. That year was similar to this year: a lot of healthy competition for best picture – “Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck," and "Munich” -- that threw the narrative into disarray.

So what the Academy tends to do in lieu of a consensus winner (or not knowing which good picture to award) is recede and go with the safest, easiest bet. This is exactly what happened in 2005 with "Crash," and to a lesser extent happened in 2010 when "The King's Speech" beat out the edgier "The Social Network," a film that critics and cinephiles loved, but as a two-hour-long episode of "Law & Order" didn't convince the Academy. Arguably, this played out in 2000 as well. The safe pick, "Gladiator," won Best Picture, while Best Director went to the "edgier" film "Traffic" by Steven Soderbergh. In a year where there's healthy competition, finding a consensus winner is even more difficult, hence the scattered winners of the 85th Academy Awards. Though one must note: pundits also like a consensus year, as we're all used to having a clear-cut winner and disarray throws us for a loop too (god forbid our predictions are off or it’s a “surprise” year). A divided house is a confused house.

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, set image
Then There's The Competition
Steven Spielberg films are notoriously nominated but hardly ever given awards at the Oscars. "Lincoln" was a textbook example. Nominated for 12 awards (more than any other picture in 2013), it took two home, which is one of the lowest comparable averages in Oscar history. Daniel Day-Lewis was a shoo-in, but the historical document of rectifying an amendment (slavery seemed to be besides the point, this was a film about passing a bill in Washington) wasn't exactly emotional or totally involving; something to be admired more than loved, and that, as the awards showed, was a deciding factor in the outcome. A much stronger contender for Best Picture, given the Academy's tendencies, was the feel-good mental illness cum romantic dramedy "Silver Linings Playbook." It certainly received its share of votes, but simply couldn't outgun the Affleck/"Argo" train. Perhaps its ending was a little too neat. Likewise, "Life Of Pi" was "Avatar," but with a heart and soul, a dazzling technical achievement, but one with a much deeper core and spiritual center. Cleaning up with the most Oscars of the evening (four), "Life Of Pi," was clearly Affleck film's biggest threat. Perhaps its Achilles heel was its conventional, "this is how I remembered it" framing device in the screenplay, whereas "Argo" took the Best Adapted Screenplay for its taut and well-constructed narrative that hit each crucial beat on cue like a perfected algorithm. The other films in competition were never going to be a real threat except for "Zero Dark Thirty," arguably our favorite of the bunch, but a picture, like "Lincoln," probably too cold for the Academy. Additionally, the film took a hard blow to the knees thanks to "pro-torture" anti-campaigning in December that you can bet rival studios had a hand in.

"Argo" Is A Crackling Little Thriller, Albeit Not Exactly Revelatory
And let's not take away from "Argo" itself, a taut and engaging nail-biter that was awarded on its own merits (and that everyone seemed to love in September, but then, in typical Oscar fashion, started to turn against when it started to emerge as the frontrunner at the last minute). Affleck directed the shit out of the movie. It’s got great, engrossing, do-or-die stakes, excellent suspense and tension, and a crackling pace. Yes, its villains were black and white and its attempt to inject personal stakes for Affleck's lead rang false for some, but all in all it was arguably the tightest, though perhaps safest film of the bunch as its politics weren't controversial: it was easy to get behind and root for, and despite the potential complexity of the story, it ultimately felt simple. Again several factors rolled into one, equaling the Oscar win.

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  • Matt | February 28, 2013 3:23 AMReply

    Riva deserves it. Simple as that. Her performance was just heartbreaking.

  • cinematic_high | February 26, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    Amy Adams, Chastain and Zero Dark Thirty should of won. Everything else was decent and overhyped.

  • jesse wylie | February 26, 2013 3:45 PMReply

    here's a stunner: "argo" won best picture (and i feel really good being able to say this sincerely) because the script was very fine, and in particular the editing was just right--suggesting a collaborative job among perceptive people. not too long, not cut too harshly. just right. and the film was both admirable and--this is important--thoroughly enjoyable.

  • Alan B | February 26, 2013 6:40 PM

    Yeah, that "fine" script had all those memorable characters, who had such depth and pathos. The script had good structure: this is why a film deserves Best Picture?

  • Edward Davis | February 26, 2013 5:27 PM

    Yeah, again, that's not all of it. If Oscars were based on merits alone it would be a completely different show.

  • Rob | February 26, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    I'm particularly sad, though not surprised at all, that Lawrence took the Oscar over Riva.
    For me, this proves only two things:
    1- Most people that voted for Lawrence didn't see "Amour" (or are French-haters)
    2- Young hot women are always the frontrunners in this category
    (during the last 20 years only 2 women over 50 have won: Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. And both of these Hollywood English-speaking celebrities won by playing British celebrities)
    When you think about all of this... the Academy choosing Riva would have been a MAJOR upset (though absolutely deserved and a beautiful exception to the hot&young-gals-rule)

  • Pamela | February 26, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    To be honest I don't get how Jennifer Lawrence won, she wasn't acting in that movie, she was just being herself, there were more worthy performances this year, but Oscars are not about worth, they're popularity contests, that's why at the Golden Globes she said "Harvey, thanks for killing whoever you had to kill to get me here"

  • Dryer | February 26, 2013 1:29 PMReply

    "Argo" itself, a taut, and engaging nail-biter, that was awarded on its own merits Affleck directed the shit out of the movie, it’s got great, engrossing, do-or-die stakes, excellent suspense and tension and a crackling pace...
    All this time I must've been watching a different movie. There's more ".. engrossing, do-or-die stakes, excellent suspense and tension and a crackling pace.." in a single episode of Mike & Molly. It's a below average film, stop trying to be an apologist for a polish turd; this site is better than that.

  • RC | February 28, 2013 12:01 PM

    NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN stands as one of the best winners for best picture. And THERE WILL BE BLOOD was in the category that year.

  • Rodrigo | February 26, 2013 5:31 PM

    Dryer, Umm. no. I reviewed it in August and called it a "Terrifically Suspenseful & Entertaining Thriller" nothing more, nothing less. Did it reinvent the wheel? Hell no. But i was reviewing it based on its own merits nothing more. Problem is everyone is looking at it as a "THIS IS A BEST PICTURE?" and in that sense nothing ever really stands up. But regardless, there was no revisionism on my part. I liked it to begin with and never needed to be an apologist for it. Good film. Yes. Best Picture film? Thankfully I don't need to make those decisions and whatever, they don't matter.

  • tomincmh | February 26, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    It's a tremendous shame how much politics seemed to factor into this Oscar race in particular. I feel especially bad for Chastain, who was considered a frontrunner for Best Actress when Zero Dark Thirty came out, but then was taken down with the film when the pseudo controversy started. Lawrence was amusing and quirky, but that was not an Oscar worthy performance. I can only imagine how large that ego of her's is going to be now.

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