Two days ago MCN’s David Poland suggested that Spotlight might be this year’s Argo, only better. What is an Argo/Spotlight flick? A team of earnest professionals — The Avengers in a real-life, human-scale mode — pool their resources to solve or significantly impact a real-life problem. But that’s where the similarity ends. Argo bent or fabricated facts and threw in a little Hollywood bullshit (emotional caressings, smart-assy dialogue, fake-suspense endings) to sweeten the package. Spotlight is a lean, strictly-business, bullshit-free dramatization of a landmark investigative report by the Boston Globe about widespread perversion and corruption in the Catholic church. It operates on a plane way, way above Argo.
Let’s clear the air. Those who called Argo a Best Picture humdinger when it first screened during the 2012 fall festivals have since felt twinges of regret. It won the Best Picture Oscar only because there was nowhere else to go after the stinking Stalinist takedown of Zero Dark Thirty — easily the finest Best Picture nominee of 2012 — and because not enough voters were able to realize what an inspired, once-in-a-blue-moon, 21st Century anxiety romcom Silver Linings Playbook was (partly due to HE commentariat pissheads who wouldn’t stop slagging it).
Argo was the last Best Picture contender standing. It won by a default fallback situation. It won by way of a huge collective “why not?” — basically a shrugging of shoulders.
I always enjoyed and admired Argo as far as it went, but when the “oh, my God!” reactions started pouring in I stepped back and said, “Wait, wait, wait…hold on.” Just to refresh everyone’s memory, here’s what I wrote on 9.14.12, or only a few days after Argo‘s first Telluride screening:
Excerpt #1: “What’s this Argo obsession that Sasha Stone, Kris Tapley and Roger Ebert are putting out? Drop to their knees in worship? What film can steal its Best Picture thunder? Will you guys please take it easy? Argo is a very fine thing — a well-crafted, highly satisfying caper film with a certain patriotic resonance that basically says ‘job well done, guys…you should be proud.’ But the hosannahs are a bit much.
Excerpt #2: “Argo is basically a movie designed to enthrall, charm, amuse, thrill, move and excite. It’s a comfort-blanket movie that basically says ‘this was the problem, and this is how it was solved…and the guys who made it happen deserve our applause and respect…no?’ Yes, they do. But above all Argo aims to please. It skillfully creates suspense elements that probably weren’t that evident when the story actually went down. And it throws in two or three divorced-father-hangs-with-young-son scenes, and some CIA razmatazz and a few ’80s Hollywood cheeseball jokes and basically lathers it all on.
Excerpt #3: “I keep thinking about that jacked-up suspense finale that ‘works’ but doesn’t feel genuine. You know it doesn’t. That last nail-biting bit with the police cars hot-dogging the departing jet on the Tehran airport runway? Standard Hollywood bullshit.”
Excerpt #4: “If I was a high-school teacher and Argo was a term paper, I would give it an 87 or 88. Okay, an 89. It’s obviously good, but it’s not constructed of the kind of material that ages well. It is not a film that exudes paralyzing greatness. Like many highly regarded Hollywood films, it adheres to familiar classic centrist entertainment values…and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s very pleasing thing, but it’s a fucking caper film. Boil it down and it’s Ocean’s 11 set in Washington, D.C., L.A. and Tehran of 1978 and ’89 without the money or the flip glamorous vibe or the Clooney-Pitt-Damon-Cheadle combustion.
Excerpt #5: “Just get a grip, is all I’m saying. Tone it down.”