LOS ANGELES - Some years, Academy Awards voters just want to feel right about themselves, their industry, their country. And maybe honor one of their own who hasn't always shared in the love of his peers.
That could explain why Ben Affleck's "Argo" has gone from best-picture longshot to Oscar favorite over such competitors as Steven Spielberg's stately but talky Civil War portrait "Lincoln" or Kathryn Bigelow's brilliant yet contentious CIA thriller "Zero Dark Thirty."
"Argo" is a feel-good thrill ride that's patriotic enough to warrant a good "USA! USA!" chant as the credits roll. It's all about how Hollywood helped save some lives. And a best-picture win could be viewed as righting a wrong after Affleck inexplicably missed out on a best-director nomination.
"There's a surge to embrace Ben Affleck in the aftermath of his Oscar snub. It seems like such an outrage that his film is benefiting from it as a result," said Tom O'Neil, who runs the awards website GoldDerby.com. "It really is a pro-'Argo' movement more than it is a kind of shrug off of `Lincoln' or a disparagement of `Zero Dark Thirty.' Hollywood is rallying around one of their wounded own."
"Argo" is one of three true-life best-picture nominees steeped in different eras of U.S. history. Spielberg's "Lincoln," which leads the Oscars with 12 nominations and looked like the front-runner until "Argo" began winning top honors at other awards shows, is a towering study of Abraham Lincoln as he maneuvers to end the war and pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. "Argo" tells of a little-known victory amid an otherwise enervating chapter in American foreign affairs during the Iran hostage crisis. Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" is a dark story of this last dark decade as the CIA builds leads that result in the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
In their way, all three are stories of American triumph, but told with wildly divergent tones. "Lincoln" is a saga of hope amid national tragedy, meticulously researched but a little emotionally remote because of its attention to Washington deal-making, 1860s-style. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a bleak tale of uncertain patriotism, also meticulously researched but at times more than a little emotionally repugnant because of the questionable means it depicts in a righteous cause.
"Argo" is the one that turns triumph into an end-zone dance. Affleck has taken knocks in the past over his acting, but in only his third film as director, he shows complete mastery of populist movie-making. He gives viewers great drama, great laughs, agonizing tension and an exultant finale, all while playing loose with the facts in a way audiences can forgive in the name of a terrific piece of entertainment.
"When you look at the small group of movies that are really in contention to win, `Argo' is the most exciting choice in two ways," said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for movie-ticket seller Fandango.com. "It's the most exciting of the movies, and it would be the most exciting winner because of its now underdog feeling that it has by not getting that directing nomination. `Argo' is managing that near-impossible thing. It's winning everything, yet it still feels like the underdog."
Much like the story Affleck tells. As Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy, where they held 52 people hostage for 444 days, six Americans escaped and took refuge with Canadian diplomats. CIA rescue specialist Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, organized a daring plot to get them out disguised as crew members of a fake sci-fi movie scouting locations in Iran.
Their unlikely escape by an outrageous scheme is a ray-of-sunshine footnote in the hostage story, a side story obscure enough that filmmakers could tweak it for all it's worth in a way that would never work with such well-known narratives as Lincoln's final days or the bin Laden raid.
That white-knuckle takeoff at the Tehran airport, with Iranian assault teams racing behind the jet down the runway? Never happened. In Mendez's book "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History," the six Americans' passage through the Tehran airport and onto the plane was uneventful. The takeoff and two-hour flight out of Iranian airspace is told in just four sentences.
Much like the escape, "Argo" is Hollywood audacity at its best, taking the gist of a true story and dressing it up into a fun night out.
Meantime, the makers of "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" may have tried to be too genuine. Based partly on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Spielberg's film is enormously entertaining yet professorial at times. Based on Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's painstaking research, "Zero Dark Thirty" has prompted a savage debate over its depictions of interrogations, with critics saying the film misleads viewers for suggesting that torture provided information that helped the CIA find bin Laden.
"Lincoln" gets a little dry in its history lesson, and "Zero Dark Thirty" gets a little ugly in its reflection of deeds done in our name. Or more simply, "Lincoln" hurts our heads, "Zero Dark Thirty" hurts our hearts.
While "Argo" is a big wet kiss, a crowd-pleaser that works at every level.
"Argo" won at the Golden Globes and earned top honors from the Producers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. Affleck is up for the big prize at Saturday's Directors Guild of America Awards, and if he wins there, it will establish "Argo" as a solid favorite at the Feb. 24 Oscars, where it would become just the fourth film to win best picture without a directing nomination.
Some years, heavy, somber films win, like Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" over the sci-fi smash "Avatar" three years ago. And some years, Oscar voters want that big wet kiss. The great escape chronicled in "Argo" seems to be just the sort of escapism they're looking for this season.