Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of "Argo." I've seen it twice, enjoyed it mightily both times, and put it on my 10-best list, where it belongs. I called it "a smart, complex and engaging film that crackles with energy and purpose," and I stand by those words.
But the thought that "Argo" has somehow become the favorite to win the best picture Oscar on Sunday makes me feel a little sad.
It's not because there are other films that I would prefer to see win, though, obviously, there are. Yes, I would be delighted if Michael Haneke's austere, emotional "Amour" took the statuette, but that's about as likely as "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" getting more nominations than "Lincoln." As a veteran Oscar observer, I learned long ago that indulging in personal preferences just gets in your way.
It's also not because I bemoan the motion picture academy's taste. This finite group of film professionals likes what it likes, year in and year out, and heartwarming is always a key ingredient. Even knowing "The Gatekeepers," the paradigm-shifting, once-in-a-generation Israeli documentary, may well lose to the feel-good "Searching for Sugar Man" is just the way it is.
And if you know the academy, getting upset about the way personality dynamics factor into the voting is like getting upset at the heat in Death Valley. "Argo" director and star Ben Affleck is understandably liked and respected by the membership, and the way he has gone from an actor who made questionable career moves to a truly first-rate director is a story that many in the business (and I too) find inspirational.
It was likely Affleck's perceived snub by the academy's directors branch that allowed the Hollywood community to privilege that positive feeling and see to it that Our Ben would never feel snubbed again. This kind of emotional sympathy vote is business as usual for the academy: Elizabeth Taylor's Oscar for 1960's "Butterfield 8" after a near-fatal illness is an often-cited case in point. When you factor in Hollywood's eternally ambivalent, schadenfreude-tinged feelings toward Steven Spielberg, whose "Lincoln" initially seemed like the front-runner, the "Argo" juggernaut is hardly a surprise.
It also doesn't hurt that "Argo" has positioned itself as a kind of "Zero Dark Thirty" Lite, gently reminding voters with a recent "Argo: Declassified" DVD about "the real-life events that inspired the movie." Though most people know that "Argo" has taken liberties with what really happened in Tehran, including creating a bogus last-minute airport crisis, because no U.S. senators were harmed in the promotion of this film few people know exactly how extensive the departures were.
And even fewer people have made an issue of the film's Manichaean view of Iranians as almost uniformly bloodthirsty and anti-American. As one disappointed reader wrote me about my failings in that area, "I am not Muslim, or Iranian, but I found the disparagement and stereotypes of the Iranian people in this film to be so painful, it distracted me from enjoying the plot."
But all of these points, valid though they may or may not be, involve looking at "Argo" through the window of today. My melancholy about the film's potential victory comes from looking at "Argo" through the lens of time. My problem, in short, is not with the academy but with the shifting nature of the movie business itself.
For though "Argo" is undeniably an accomplished piece of work, there was a time within the memory of those living when turning out films like this was what the studios did for a living. It used to be that smart, entertaining adult vehicles like "Argo" were simply business as usual for Hollywood, the bread and butter of a busy industry that consistently delivered adult entertainments in genres without number. In those days a film like "Argo" would in no way stand out far enough from the crowd to be the favorite for the best picture Oscar.
Have things changed so much in so short a period of time? I'm afraid they have.
That change, of course, is not news to anyone who's given even minimal thought to the state of an industry in thrall to the teenage demographic. Three of the films listed among Box Office Mojo's top 10 grossers of 2012 came from comic books ("The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man"), two were animated ("Brave," "Madagascar 3") and three came from books with a large youthful following: "The Hunger Games," "The Hobbit" and the final "Twilight" film. The only interlopers were the James Bond "Skyfall" and the raunchy "Ted," whose success was so unexpected it landed Seth MacFarlane the Oscar hosting assignment.
With the studios' almost exclusive focus on huge-grossing juvenile-oriented tent poles, the kind of films that play well overseas as well, Hollywood is in a different business than it once was. And it is quite possible that a nostalgia for the old days among people who spend their working lives toiling on those would-be blockbusters has made "Argo" and its old-fashioned familiarity the favorite.
It's also possible that there's a kind of magical thinking involved in "Argo's" ascendance. Just as Kevin Costner's character in "Field of Dreams" believed that if he built it they would come, perhaps Oscar voters are hoping that if they act as if the past is alive it will somehow reappear, that if we make believe this is what Hollywood still does, maybe it will continue to do it. No one wants to buy into this kind of thinking more than I do, but I wouldn't hold my breath.