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
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.