Since Argo is up for some major awards, it seems worthy of mention here. I enjoyed this movie tremendously, because I was a Foreign Service brat in that period. I lived in crummy third-world countries while military coups went on, and was bussed home from elementary school because of rumors of rocket attacks. I have watched American Embassy architecture rapidly evolve from country-club to fortress, and listened to my diplomat father hastily designating who should inherit his car and his watch in case he should perish on duty. (Nothing happened; he’s always been an Eeyore. He is now in his late 80s and retired.)
Argo is wonderfully true to all this. It nicely balances fear with comedy — any movie set in the late 70s has a comedic element, if for no other reason than the clothes and hairstyles. What is educational from the writerish point of view, however, is how a relatively modest and simple story line gets developed.
Because, as you probably know, the actual rescue of the six Americans from the Canadian embassy in Tehran went as smooth as cream. The CIA likes it that way; there is no room over at Langley for drama. Nobody heard anything about the operation until it was all over. When the time came for publicity they were happy to shove the Canadians to the front and let them take the applause.
So, given that it was calm and cunning and subtle, how do you make a thriller out of the story? Easy. You add plot complications, the way you hang tinsel on a Christmas tree. Does your story have more than one character? Let them disagree about stuff, minor and major. Add dissention in the CIA hierarchy, and quarrels in the hideout in the Canadian Embassy. How about a dyspeptic Jimmy Carter? While you’re at it, the antagonists should fight too. Troubled water and no bridge, that’s what the writer looks for.
Every work of fiction has a conflict, since otherwise there would be no story at all. Start adding more roadblocks. Misery is the writer’s friend! Everything should be difficult for the hero. Achieving his goal should never be as simple as just going to Tehran. There has to be a picturesque trip to Hollywood first. Romance? Gotta have some romance, and so Ben Affleck’s character has to have a rocky marriage which is going to be saved by this caper. Oh, and get him a cute kid, to up the ante and clearly indicate that he is a Good Guy; the only thing missing is a faithful collie.
For movies, so visually oriented, action is a must. If there wasn’t any in the original story, add it. Skulduggery with the servants! Tense confrontations at checkpoints! Creepy and unnecessary excursions into the marketplace! And, essential for the catharsis, a final terrible peril. The last moments of danger should be acute. Will the cover hold? Will the phone call to Hollywood get through? (This is where it slides into fantasy; phone calls of that period from Tehran to California never went through right away.) And, the cherry on the icing, the blazing AKs on the runway. This is now way over the top, but by this point the audience should be completely caught up in the story.
Some reviewers have complained that this movie is unbelievable and formulaic, that you can see the stuff coming. And you can — but only in retrospect. If a story is well done, the quickness of the hand deceives the eye. It’s a pleasure to watch Argo and see the clever hands at work.
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