Thursday, 13 December 2012

Argo - Exaggerating the Fiction?

       Argo is the recently declassified true story of a CIA operative given the task of safely escorting out six American embassy workers hiding out in the city of Tehran during the 1980 American embassy hostage situation in Iran. The stranger-than-fiction part of this story was that the plan to rescue them was to do so under the cover of posing as a Canadian film crew scouting for exotic locations for a made-up Star Wars rip-off sci-fi epic named “Argo”.

       In equal parts tense drama and lightly comedic Hollywood satire, Argo remains entertaining throughout - although some have complained about how parts of the story were omitted or exaggerated from the actual facts of what happened. Is this a good or bad thing? Here are my thoughts. (NOTE: may include story spoilers).

       First off, I can see the point of why the film should have portrayed the events as realistically as possible. After all, Ben Affleck (who directs and stars) has definitely gone for authenticity in terms of recreating the look and feel of the era. The prevalence of big glasses, mustaches and pastel shaded clothes are all authentic looking to the tail end of the 70s, as well as the filmmakers reportedly cutting the film footage in half and then blowing up the images 200% to get that extra grainy look.
       During the credits the actors are shown side by side with their real life counterparts (many looking eerily similar) and stock footage is woven seamlessly throughout the film. Its clear that the look Affleck was going for was one of authenticity.

       But facts-wise things divert as little. There is no showing of the help received from the British and New Zealand embassies. Aside from sheltering the Americans, the Canadian involvement is presented at a minimum – with the CIA operative Tony Mendez and the producers of the fake Hollywood film being given most of the credit. Oh, and that nail-bitingly tense airport escape at the end? Didn't even happen.

       ...But it makes for damn fine cinema. This is what is called artistic license. If this was a presented as a documentary, fair enough – you would want the events to be recounted as they actually happened, but when presented in the form of entertainment it is no surprise that any filmmaker worth his salt is going to do it in such a way that facilitates the efficiency of the story telling (story beats, act structure, character development arcs) as well as to provide the sufficient tension to keep us glued to the events on screen.
       And for the most part it works. Imagining a version of the film where it sticks slavishly to the facts - it just isn’t appealing to me cinematically. Take for example, the comedic duo of John Goodman and Alan Arkin playing the Hollywood Make-up artist John Chambers (existed) and producer Lester Siegel (didn’t exist) respectively. Their satirical portrayal of the Hollywood system that often results in much of the film’s comedic moments works in the context of the film as it provides an effective release and juxtaposition from the po-faced tension that pervades much of the events in Iran. This tension and release compliment each other to great cinematic effect to involve the audience emotionally – the scene where they are literally being presented at the same time (footage and audio from the hostage situation at the embassy including mock executions, cut with the script reading event of “Argo” – complete with the actors dressed up as their characters) being a masterstroke of editing and a satisfying midpoint of the story.
       Similarly, downplaying the Canadian involvement adds to the feeling of the helplessness of the six Americans in the situation and although it is mentioned at the end credits that this operation was an ‘admiral example of international cooperation’, I can see why Canadians might be annoyed at not being accurately represented in their overall involvement in the operation. But again, this is to facilitate and focus the story events. Leaving out the involvement of the British and New Zealand embassies was done just to make the story more streamlined and evenly paced.

       Having Mendez as the central character gives the audience someone to sympathise with as well as allowing for his character arc of getting over his self doubt and reconnecting with his family after the events. Having an Iranian housemaid who may or may not turn them in (instead of a Filipino one, as there was in real life) adds extra tension to the story. Having a showdown at the boarding gate where Scoot McNairy’s character redeems himself of his earlier reluctance to follow the plan by being the one to step up and almost entrance the guards with his animated descriptions of scenes from the yet to be filmed sci-fi epic, is heart-warming and possibly my favourite part of the film.
       Does it matter that these facts and events were embellished a little or even made-up for cinematic effect?In my eyes, I would say no – as long as the credibility remains intact and the events stay relatively realistic. The most unbelievable part of the whole story is the central ‘fake movie’ idea of the operation – and that at least is 100% true, which of course what the movie sells itself on and inspired the film to be made in the first place.

       I think people sometimes get too hung up on what’s presented as real or not. As I said earlier - if this film was to be a documentary they would have presented it as a documentary. If people wanted to find out how much of the events were 100% real after watching Argo they would surely go and look up the facts from different sources (which is exactly what I did).
       At the end of the day, the way Affleck and co. have put this film together is to serve the narrative and capture the spirit of the story – which in my opinion they have been successful in – resulting in what I think (Oscar buzz aside) is one of the best films of the year. This definitely could not have been achieved or indeed being as enjoyable a film to watch if these story ‘enhancements’ were not put into place. Any biopic or historical film ‘based on a true story’ takes liberties with the truth in order to serve the story and the cinematic experience – that's just how effective storytelling works.

       Anyway, that's just my opinion. Some people will not agree and continually rant about things that don't really matter such as Mendez being played by Affleck instead of a hispanic actor - but hey, I’m not going to get too hung up on that either. A more childish response from me however might have been to utter the repeated joke from the movie: Ar-go f*ck yourselves!
       …But of course I am waaaay to mature for that…

13 Dec 2012

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