Guest column: ‘Argo’ should not win best picture, but it will

Rex Santus

The year 2012 was jostling with ambitious, unusual movies — great movies about humanity’s beauty and ugliness, fantasy and reality, politics and spirituality. Great movies that grab, challenge, surprise and inspire their viewers. But this year’s best-picture front-runner, “Argo,” isn’t a great movie. It’s just a good one.

“Argo” succeeds as a minor, “truth-based” caper, staged here by director Ben Affleck. The movie is designed to be easily digested. Moviegoers sit down for two hours as the 1970s-set thriller winds down to a pulse-quickening finale in an Iranian airport. When it’s over, it’s over. There’s no ambiguity, no irony or questions to toil over. The movie’s hero — spoiler — returns to the States, wins back his estranged ex’s heart and collects an award for bravery.

It’s about as American as the Fourth of July. Too bad “Argo” is largely fictitious. Canada, a major and just-as-responsible player in exfiltrating those Americans out of Iran, is largely ignored in the movie. Because, you see, this was a novel scheme developed by the United States’ brightest intelligence officers. Only brilliant, American minds, you see, could dream up such an unusual, daring escape, even in the face of such staunch opposition. (That’s another big wrong: The movie’s insistence that the CIA repeatedly blocked Tony Mendez’s fake-movie escape plan is just plain not true.)

I’m not saying movies should always cater to wholesale accuracy. I understand dramatic license, I promise. But better, more thoughtful movies that didn’t so heavily distort truth to entertain were shamed and shoved out of the Oscar race for refusing to offer bow-wrapped resolutions.

Oscar night’s rightful winner, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is too ambiguous to be prom queen. Ironically, the movie’s journalistic presentation of torture — which sparked the controversy surrounding the film — is grounded in fact. Yes, the United States did torture people. No, the movie doesn’t tell you how to feel about that; it asks you to decide for yourself. But why would we go to the movies to think when we have “Argo” to tell us America rocks?

Because “Zero Dark Thirty” is too brazen, let’s weigh out other contenders. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is too strange. “Les Miserables” is too divisive. “Amour” is too foreign. “Life of Pi” is too modern. We’re left with featherweight, feel-good “Silver Linings Playbook” and talky “Lincoln.”

Both are better movies than “Argo,” but “Lincoln” deserves the win. For all its Oscar-bait trappings — the period setting and revered historical figure at its center — “Lincoln” has more in common with, say, “The Social Network” than “The King’s Speech.” It’s a deeply complicated and often alienating viewing, the type of movie so rarely awarded the industry’s top honor.

“Argo,” however, is typical Academy fare: a self-congratulatory and overly fictionalized retelling of an insignificant historical event. “Lincoln” is mostly conversations in dark rooms about the country’s burgeoning concept of equality. There’s no loveable lead with a minor obstacle to overcome; there’s no pat-on-the-back when the last frame fades. If anything, “Lincoln” reminds us the United States is an ever-developing nation.

Let me reiterate: A historical movie’s worth is not founded only in its accuracy. But “Argo” sacrifices its truth — that it was a smooth escape (no runway car chases or tense interrogations) built on the cooperation of the United States and Canada — for cheap catharsis and thriller tricks. Can you even remember any of the six American diplomats’ names? It’s a fun and well-made ride, but it isn’t likely to kindle much dinner conversation aside from, “How tense was that airport scene that didn’t really happen?” Sorry, Mr. Affleck, but your post-movie acknowledgement of Canada is not enough, and your film does not deserve best picture.

Rex Santus is a senior news major and a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau at Ohio University. Contact him at [email protected].