Quick disclaimer — if you have adverse reactions to spoilers, then you might not want to read on.
I finally watched Argo this weekend. Ever since I heard about this film, the concept really intrigued me. I used to really love old, campy B-movies, and the idea of a CIA agent pretending to make one as a cover to rescue hostages from Iran was very intriguing.
The short review: terrific cast, great direction, and even though you knew the hostages were going to make it out okay, the tension was palpable throughout.
But the part that still sticks with me two days later, is the climactic scene at the airport. Ben Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, has successfully shepherded the hostages to the airport under the guise of being the producer of a sci-fi film. They are about to get on the plane, when the Revolutionary Guards pull them aside for questioning. It’s like getting pulled out of line by the TSA, but instead of being a minor inconvenience, these people could be killed.
And how do they get out of it? By telling a story. The screenplay of Argo, to be exact.
And it’s not a particularly memorable story. I think there were some aliens, a hero who saves a woman, and a laser gun battle.
But what made the moment work so well in the film, was that the person who told the story wasn’t CIA operative Tony Mendez, a guy who had dealt with situations like this before. No, the guy who stepped up was Joe Stafford, a character who, up until this point in the story, was scared. He didn’t believe in the plan and thought it was suicide to leave the country pretending to be a fake movie crew. But when confronted by the enemy, this guy told the story of Argo to the guards in their native language and didn’t miss a beat.
From a storytelling perspective, it was a smart choice to have Stafford, not Mendez tell the story. Mendez knew the cover story inside and out and he believed in it. Stafford, not so much. So there was more dramatic tension created by giving the moment to Stafford.
At first, the guards were dubious. But Stafford committed to the story, describing the characters and plot, and even showing them some storyboards. The guards were hooked. They lost themselves in the story. They let their guard down for that moment.
This event, coupled with the head guard confirming their cover story, allowed them to board the plane and escape.
Even after the group left, there’s a shot of the guards looking at the storyboard drawings and making laser gun sounds, playacting the story.
Although that scene with the guards apparently did not happen in the real-life events of the story on which Argo is based, it didn’t diminish the meaning:
Story has the power to save us.
That’s what resonated with me. I think there are other messages to be gleaned from the film for sure, but that’s the one that really stuck out to me.
The whole mission hinged on whether this group could plausibly pretend to be a film crew scouting locations for a fictional story. Thematically, it made perfect sense that story saved the day.