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Argo moves to the fore in Oscar best picture race

Categories: Movies

ArgoBryan Cranston, left, as Jack O'Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez appear in the thriller Argo. (Warner Bros./Associated Press)

As awards season barrels forward in Hollywood, Argo is proving to be the warm fuzzy choice for Hollywood voters this time around.

Ben Affleck's film about the CIA operation that freed six Americans during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis picked up an early honour when it won the Golden Globe for best picture drama on Jan. 13, with the evening's best director trophy going to the actor-filmmaker himself.

Argo castActor Ben Affleck with the award for best cast in a motion picture for Argo at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

That night could have been dismissed as a fluke — the Globes are notorious for picking films with the prettiest stars ahead of those truly worthy — but the Producers Guild subsequently chose Argo as best picture last Saturday. The Screen Actors Guild then awarded the entertaining flick its top honour — best cast performance — at the SAG gala on Sunday.

Taken together, the two industry groups represent a powerful block of Academy Award voters. So while Affleck is not even in the running for best director at the Academy Awards, his movie is now most definitely a front-runner in the best picture race.

We know Argo is fast and loose with history, for instance downplaying the Canadian role of sheltering and breaking out the American hostages. The Canadian diplomat who was involved, Ken Taylor, has graciously given his congratulations to Affleck on the success of his film, despite his reduced role in its screenplay.

Still, memories are short and most movie-goers prefer their films to be thrilling, rather than accurate. Another point in Argo's favour is that it gives the movie biz a major pat on the back. Its two lovable Hollywood insiders, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, are scene-stealers as their characters give Affleck's CIA agent lessons in posing as a film crew and provide the pretense of a sci-fi film (titled Argo) as a cover for the American hostages to make their escape.

Which begs the question: What happened to earlier front-runners Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty?

It would be difficult to find a finer piece of movie-making than Lincoln, which depicts the Civil War and the backroom politics of the day in stark and dirty detail. It is history rough around the edges, with its hero — Abraham Lincoln rendered flawlessly by Daniel Day-Lewis — playing somewhat devious political games and using the powerful intellect for which he was known. Is it a little bit too much like real life — too much of a lesson about a sitting president trying to do the impossible: unite a divided country? Or is Hollywood just sick of politics and sick of seeing producer-director Steven Spielberg on its podiums?

Zero Dark ThirtyZero Dark Thirty features a pulse-pounding finale. (Columbia Pictures)

Zero Dark Thirty, the gripping story telling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been knocking critics onto their heels since before Christmas. It has a pulse-pounding finale — with Navy SEALS entering the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan — but the story leading up to it is matter of fact about the use of torture.

In the new year, however, a U.S. Senate committee began looking into how much and what exactly the CIA told filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Then, several senators spoke out against the film's depiction of torture as useful in extracting information. No one likes to see their country in a bad light and some Hollywood insiders began campaigning against the film. Bigelow, like Affleck, did not make the best director nomination list for the Academy Awards.

Argo gives Hollywood a nice, safe cinematic package to digest: the ordeal didn't drag out over 10 years and countless misplaced leads. It was over in 74 days and "the good guys" won without doing anything dastardly. Plus, of course, Tinseltown was instrumental in freeing the hostages.

The Directors Guild gives out its annual awards this coming Saturday and Affleck is in the running. Many will be tuning in to see which way the winds of Hollywood continue to blow.

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