Argo's Timeliness Makes it Oscar Frontrunner

The cameras zoom in on the red carpet. Two perfectly coiffed reporters, dressed dapperly, are screaming, “Who are you wearing?” Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway drop some designer’s name and a veiled comment about their chances of winning an award. It’s Oscar season!

This year’s nominees for Best Picture make an interesting list, from Beasts of the Southern Wild to Lincoln, with each film bringing some diversity to the bag.

Two films in particular bring traditional Hollywood genres back to the forefront.

Despite being popular in the classic Hollywood era, today musicals have been relegated to the teen audience with franchises like Step Up and High School Musical. Les Misérables brought the critics back to the musical this year.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained marks the return of the Western film. Although a popular genre for a good part of the last century, Western films are now sparse, with only Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men coming to mind.

Silver Linings Playbook, also a nominee this year, stands a strong chance at winning. A romantic comedy is a good money-spinning formula, but rarely does it garner critical acclaim. The only romantic-comedies to win in the last 25 years are The Artist, which won the award last year, and Shakespeare in Love, which won way back in 1998, so if Silver Linings were to win, it would be breaking tradition. Also, Jennifer Lawrence, coming off wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globe Awards, is a frontrunner for Best Actress. At only 22, she’s the same age as many 5C students.

The most unconventional nomination this year, however, is the film Amour. As a French-language film not produced in the United States, it is surprising that it was nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Foreign Language Film. By nominating Amour in the Best Picture category, the Academy has shown it is willing to embrace world cinema.

My favorite, and perhaps the strongest contender this year, is the film Argo. The film has already won Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the Golden Globes and Best Film at the British Academy Film Awards.

Argo is set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran for 444 days by Iranian revolutionaries.

For the revolutionaries, America was the “Great Satan” state for harboring the deposed Shah of Iran. On Nov. 4, 1979, they attacked the American Embassy in hordes. In the confusion and chaos, six Americans escaped from the embassy and safely reached the Canadian ambassador’s home to seek refuge.

Ironically, their escape put the six Americans in a more precarious position. Since they stealthily escaped, they could not go back to the embassy, lest they be mistaken for spies by the Iranian government. Although the Canadian ambassador was willing to provide them with discreet refuge, he could not officially claim to harbor them, as this would mean the end of diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran. All they could do was stay put and covert, and hope that no Iranian revolutionary would find out about them. What followed is a crazy undercover rescue mission by the CIA. The CIA set up a fake film production company for a film titled Argo and had the six Americans pretend to be a Canadian movie crew, scouting for film locations in Iran. They hoped this would be a plausible enough story to hoodwink the Iranian authorities and let the escaped six board a return flight to America.

The film’s screenplay is the star of the film. Granted, the writers had exciting material to work with in the first place: The CIA funded a fake sci-fi movie to rescue American nationals from a Middle Eastern country, thereby qualifying the film for a "based on a true story" tagline. The screenplay is effective because the writers do not exaggerate the drama of the original story--instead, they tell it as it is. The scenes never seem implausible or far-fetched. You won’t find any of the white-collar diplomats magically becoming ace undercover MI5 operatives.

Ben Affleck has come a long way since his three nominations for Worst Actor in the Golden Raspberry Awards. He does well in the role of the stoic CIA operative Tony Mendez, the lead in charge of the rescue mission, but he is brilliant as the director. He makes great use of the subtle screenplay to craft his scenes. He maximizes the tension present in the screenplay to make events engrossing for the audience. The Hollywood scenes where Mendez interacts with film directors and make-up artists with less-than-high-tech props kept me laughing, and the climax scenes literally kept me on the edge of my seat.

The music is non-intrusive, sometime to the point of being conspicuously absent. This was perhaps a deliberate decision made by the music director to heighten the tension of the climactic scenes. 

Despite being set more than thirty years ago, the issues addressed in the film are deeply resonant for present times; terrorism originating from the Middle East and our government’s incompetence in handling these issues still concern America profoundly. Perhaps the film’s timeliness is what makes it stand out this year.

America’s attempts to halt Iran's nuclear program and deem Iran a "rogue state" could be justified by the film. A world in which such a fundamentalist regime gets access to nuclear weapons is indeed a scary prospect. However, the scenes where regular citizens of Tehran walk to join the revolutionaries show a different perspective altogether. It shows how an entire nation has been disillusioned and exploited in the last 30 years by a fundamentalist government. Can America justify doubly punishing people of a country who are already suffering under the control of a dictatorial regime?

Part of the reason why the film feels so resonant is that this is a time in which the American people are losing faith in the government. Argo will serve as a good reminder that the government is, in fact, made up of people like us, people who often find themselves helpless in situations but try their best not to let down those looking up to them. Watch Argo to let Tony Mendez show you that America is indeed a great nation because of the individual efforts of every American.