Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind unfolds as a psycho-thriller, mental-illness melodrama, and touching romance (depending on the scene), but fits into a peg hole easier than the unpredictable story behind it. While watching Ben Affleck’s historical drama-thriller Argo, I had the feeling it was taking similar liberties so as to likewise create (as Screen Rant‘s Kofi Outlaw put in his review) “worthwhile genre entertainment (no more, no less).”
That hunch turned out to be correct, but it raises the question: Would a ‘facts-only’ version of Argo have made for better or weaker entertainment – not to mention more (or less) relevant cultural resonance? Well, that’s what we’re here to investigate.
Argo, like Beautiful Mind, plays out as a clever mix of genre formulas. The opening minutes feel lifted from a documentary about the 1970s Iranian Revolution; grainy photography from Rodrigo Prieto allows stock footage to blend seamlessly with the actual film. Affleck’s direction and Chris Terrio’s script allows the film to smoothly shift from white-knuckle thriller to CIA socio-political drama, Hollywood satire, and back to high-tension yarn during the third act. In order to reach the sweaty-palm climax, though, a fair amount of exaggeration takes place.
In David Haglund’s article for Slate, it’s pointed out that virtually all the obstacles Argo throws at Affleck’s CIA agent Tony Mendez and the six endangered American embassy escapees during the third act were, in fact, made up. The reason things went so much smoother in real-life? It turns out Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber) and a fellow embassy employee John Sheardown – who does not appear in the film – were more involved with the rescue effort than the movie suggests. The two not only helped scout out the Iran airport in advance, but also purchased the Americans’ tickets, coached them in having a Canadian accent, and were even responsible for setting the rescue plan in motion to begin with.
A postscript during the film’s end titles – citing the Argo incident as a model of international cooperation – makes much more sense when you keep those facts in mind. Moreover, it calls attention to how the film could have been something quite different; instead of juxtaposing Mendez’ efforts in putting together the titular fake movie with scenes alluding to the metaphorical noose tightening around the six Americans’ collective necks (as the Iranian revolutionaries slowly became aware of their presence), the film could have jumped back and forth between the Canadians and Mendez in action. Eventually, the plot threads could come together like pieces to a puzzle, thus illustrating the beneficial nature of complimentary approaches to a large-scale problem (an important lesson for today, given the current political climate).
Now, would such a film have been nearly as engaging and fun to watch as Argo? To be honest, probably not. However, it might have allowed Affleck and Terrio to skip on some of the cliches – like turning Mendez into a workaholic with a messy personal life, or featuring stereotypical Iranian soldiers who do little more than run around and act angry. We could have followed multiple people (not just a single protagonist) as they discover the idiosyncrasies of both Hollywood folk and Iranian personnel, then deduce how to use them to their advantage, so as to pull off such a so-crazy-it’s-brilliant rescue operation. It might have been equally smart and funny at examining two very different cultures (as Argo manages to do when it concerns people in the movie business) – but again, that would have lowered the suspense factor.
What’s interesting is that Argo also had potential to offer a different perspective on the filmmaking process, seeing how (in real life) colorful personalities such as Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby, and Buckminster Fuller were among those recruited to help the titular script (which was actually based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, titled Lord of Light) seem legit. Instead, the film drops most of those people from the story in favor of fictional producer Lester Siegel (played by Alan Arkin) who embodies both the admirable and terrible traits that most people associate with Hollywood power players.
However, at the end of the day, sticking closer to the facts might have resulted in an Argo movie that’s less accessible and watchable for your average moviegoer; though, on the hand, also one more thoughtful and even-handed than your average cinematic sermon from Hollywood. The path Affleck took played to his strengths as a storyteller, more so than a different strategy would have. Maybe somewhere down the road, as Affleck continues to gain confidence (not to mention, credibility) as a director, he will strive to break further away from convention than he has so far. That’s all the more feasible, assuming he continues to develop at the same pace as he has with his first three films.
Argo is currently playing in theaters (for further breakdown of the film, check out the latest episode of the SR Underground Podcast).