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Argo – “Based on a True Story”

When I teach on scriptwriting, I’ll often get my students to take a real story that has happened to them and use it a framework to develop some new, original, and basically fictional.  I always have to prepare them that they need to be ready to let go of “the facts” of their story for the sake of making a better viewing experience.  I point out that adjustments are made all the time whenever you see something that’s “based on a true story” in order to make it a better movie.

Even so, I felt a bit disappointed when I read about all the things in the Oscar-nominated  (by the time this is posted, it might actually be Oscar-winning) film, Argo, that were invented for the film itself.  Apparently, there was no trip to the Iranian marketplace, no “end of Act II” cancellation of the mission, no tension at the airport about the validity of the air tickets, no dramatic chase down the runway.  Lots of other things were changed as well.  Was it necessary?  What that the only way to make this a compelling movie?  Director Ben Affleck apparently justified this by pointing out the difference between saying the movie is “based on a true story” and that it “is a true story.”

Oh well, it’s been a while now, and I’ve stopped being bothered.  Argo is a great movie.  After Good Will Hunting had come out, I was amongst those who didn’t like Ben Affleck and considered him to be a bit annoying.  But he does a great job directing this project, and headlines a cast of actors who deliver strong but unglamorous performances – these guys actually feel like real people, and the story is completely captivating as their situation gets more dire.

Some of the plot developments are perhaps a bit “convenient” from a storytelling point of view, leading to my original suspicion about their authenticity, but they lead to such nail-biting tension that it doesn’t really matter.  There is real courage and heroism on display, but from totally “normal” people behaving in a very normal way, which makes their accomplishments all the more admirable.  Contrast the espionage, for example with that seen in a James Bond or Mission: Impossible film, or even Alias, which also featured Victor Garber (who here, plays the Canadian ambassador).

John Goodman and Alan Arkin play the two Hollywood-types who are key to the success of the fake movie producing process, and they’re both a lot of fun.  And Jack Kirby, co-creator of most of the known Marvel universe, is a minor character as well (see here for more on his actual role).  So truly, there’s a lot to enjoy here – a lot of fun from the mixture of worlds (Hollywood, the CIA, and Iran), as well as the engaging drama.

Goodman has my favorite line:  “You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.”  It turns out Argo itself is a bit more of a fake movie than I first realized, but in the end, it didn’t rob my enjoyment.  At least not permanently.

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