“Argo” sails, “Lincoln” slips — how Team Affleck rode perfect storm to Oscar gold

Thelma Adams
Yahoo! Movies Oscars Blog

You know that season-long victory march "Argo" completed on Sunday night? It wasn't nearly as easy as it looked.

In fact, before Ben Affleck's crowd-pleasing project walked away with Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards, it had to catch a ride on a perfect storm of timing, talent and a healthy quotient of old-fashioned Hollywood luck.

"Argo," the jaunty tale of the CIA's rescue of American foreign-Nopservice workers in Iran with a little help from a Hollywood B-Movie team, began its long Oscar voyage with a strong showing at the Telluride Film Festival last fall. And while it went on to collect positive reviews and more than $130 million at the box office, it may be the things Affleck's film didn't do that really made the difference.

[ Photos: Red carpet report card ]

The biggest boost for Team "Argo" came on the day of Oscar nominations. Yes, "Argo" was among the nine Best Picture nominees, but Ben was nowhere to be seen among the Best Director nominees. Really, Benh Zeitlin over Ben Affleck?

The Academy's diss became the sand in the oyster that created the pearl. It was a turning point for Affleck and a rallying point for fans of the movie.

And Affleck took it in good-natured stride, taking a page from George Clooney’s playbook (Clooney was a co-producer on the film) and becoming the affable darling of the season.

When Affleck athletically took the podium to receive his Critics' Choice Award, he joked: "I'd like to thank the Academy…I'm kidding, I'm kidding. This is the one that counts.”

For Ben, it was all about being a good winner, while acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, the Academy had erred.

Meanwhile, his major rivals seemed to stumble. When "Zero Dark Thirty" first arrived on the scene, Ben might have worried – and did. Here comes a bigger, badder, more historically daring action movie about the CIA and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

But, then, "ZD30" fell victim to controversy, including torture debates and armies of news-show pundits discussing a narrative film as if it were a documentary.

Team "ZD30,” which sprinted to early critics' awards, and found honors for star Jessica Chastain, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, came up short in the distance race.

Suddenly, "ZD30" was critically injured. Bigelow, like Affleck, was not recognized by the Academy – but she didn't win the DGA Award either. Advantage "Argo," which saw one of its greatest rivals sacked without having to do anything but leap over the carnage.

"Argo" also benefitted from the wreckage of "Lincoln." As an anonymous studio honcho quipped over the weekend: "Who knew they could assassinate Lincoln twice?"

Team "Lincoln" suffered from an off-putting tone, a sense of entitlement and expectation – we’re quality, and you must reward us. The tipping point seemed to come at the Golden Globes, when President Bill Clinton introduced "Lincoln," one big dog to another. It was as if Spielberg just couldn't stand back, and let the film speak for itself.

"Lincoln's" loss was "Argo's" gain. Factor in the juggernaut of guild awards: the PGA, the SAGs, and the critical DGA. Every weekend, the balance tipped toward "Argo" and away from "Lincoln" in critical votes.

When the Directors Guild gave Ben Affleck recognition as their Best Director, despite the fact that he was not nominated for an Oscar, it was a way for the group to thumb their noses at the Academy and reward one of their own.

The simple truth is that Hollywood loves a success story about itself, which "Argo" truly is. It also loves a talented guy who’s been humbled, taken his lumps and bounced back.

Especially if that guy is Ben Affleck, now a family man married to Jennifer Garner, with golden George Clooney at his side. The Academy took Ben hostage, and Hollywood rallied to his aid.

It also didn't hurt that this was the year of big, successful films for adults – from "Argo" to "Lincoln" to "Life of Pi" and beyond. And they were all making money at the box office. This was not the year that the small, precious independent cinema showcase overthrew the studio Godzillas.

Little films, like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," fell into the "it's an honor just to be nominated” category. And the foreign threat, "Amour," went home with the win in its rightful category, Best Foreign-Language Film.

Once Affleck overcame the early odds in a strong field, he got on a roll and he didn’t let go. And neither did Clooney, who's learned a few things about Oscar campaigning after last year's 0-for-2 setback with "Ides of March" and "The Descendants."

In the end, it was a case of a perfect storm for "Argo": the chief rivals fell away, the director's snub led to more enthusiastic support, and Affleck the director led Affleck the star through a series of public acceptances finding the ideal tone to carry the day, and capture even the most jaded hearts of the industry.