Marc Ambinder

Why Hollywood loves Argo

Like everyone else, I was eager to see Argo, Ben Affleck's adaption of a real-life CIA operation to free American hostages in Iran. The movie delivered the trailer's promise of a great film. It was great. 

But I did not anticipate how much Hollywood itself would love the film.

Today, Argo is the leading contender for the best picture Oscar. It's won virtually every major award that this industry's guilds can bestow. Affleck's directing has been similarly lauded. 

Yes, Hollywood enjoys a movie where Hollywood is the hero. Hollywood likes movies about Hollywood. (See: The Artist)

But that can't explain why Argo was so well received by the Academy and the guilds. I think the answer has to do with the structure of the film. One of the things that aspiring film writers are taught, aside from William Goldman's encomium that "No one knows anything," is that all good movies have the same structure.

By "good," I mean successful movies. The structure is fairly simple: The first act sets up the dilemma. The second act begins with the hero deciding to take on the dilemma. The second act ends with what's known as "the hole" — the point at the movie where all seems to be lost and nothing seems destined to resolve the dilemma satisfactorily. And then there's a ray of hope, and the third act follows, with the hero resolving both the problem and his personal journey. (There are always two journeys, usually in tandem: the plot, and the hero's inner quest. They play off each other; when the movie is good, they reflect one another exactly.) 

Why this works is beyond my ken. It's a formula perfected by the industry, and it somehow adheres to what the mind expects in an escape experience like a movie. 

Argo's structure is perfect. And by perfect, I mean: the writer, Chris Terrio, and Affleck do not miss a beat. Every spot of dialogue advances the plot. Nothing is indulged. I really think that the Academy is awarding Argo because it is so conventionally good.

Take pages 25-27 of the script. You probably don't remember these scenes, but they serve the rest of the movie really well. We are led to believe that there's a lot of pressure on the CIA to come up with a plan to rescue the hostages. One proposal would be to pose them as aid workers and sneak them out.  From the screen play:  

MENDEZWhat do you see in this picture?

A beat. Malinov doesn't like this, but he'll play.


MENDEZWhat's on the ground?

MALINOVA logo with... seeds. Seeds. Snow.

MENDEZSo what crops are the do-gooders inspecting under Frosty? (after a beat of silence) Let's graduate from kindergarten.

MALINOVOkay, three hours in here — you got any ideas? Or you just got spitballs.

MENDEZI don't get paid to educate you.

And with that he picks up his stuff and goes. The room is silent.

Then the scene cuts to Mendez in the CIA cafeteria, banging his head against a vending machine. Tension builds. Then we cut to Mendez, driving home, listening to the radio. A vignette from the news: for the first time ever, the national Christmas tree on the mall hasn't been lit, out of respect to those held hostage. Subtext: The CIA has to save more than just the hostages. They have to save the spirit of the country. We cut to a room in the embassy where the hostages are kept guard. A teenager waves an assault weapon. Americans in danger. Then a cut to a clip from "America Held Hostage," ABC's daily special broadcast on the hostage crises. An everyman Vietnam veteran is interviewed:

Even in our little community here, people are drawn up, they're tight, they're tense.

Subtext: This scene builds directly on the existential anxiety that we were introduced to a moment earlier, when Mendez listened to the radio broadcast. This hostage thing really is important. 

Then a short scene in the Canadian embassy. The hostages seem oblivious; they're playing scrabble. Subtext: They are innocents about to be killed if the CIA doesn't act. Then: A warehouse in Tehran. We know that there's a cable somewhere from the State Department listing all the names of the hostages, including those who snuck out and are hiding at the Canadian embassy. As the voice of the Ayatollah Khomeini drones on, children piece together shredded documents. They're close to the secret: one of the documents is almost completely put back together. The stakes are raised. Time is running out.

That's three pages of screenplay, and about six different vehicles through which Affleck and Terrio play on the emotions of the audience. One critic complained that Affleck mastered the art of manipulating the audience at all the right moments. Which is the point of a movie, methinks. It's tight and tense, and it just works. So Argo, I think, is seen as a great movie because Argo is such a good movie.


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