Argo: Story saves the day

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.

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11 thoughts on “Argo: Story saves the day

  1. Seeing you post this made me tear up, because avatar saved me. The story you wrote pulled me out of a depression seven years ago. My older brother died when I was 16 and not two weeks after ‘The Swamp’ premiered. The line about still being connected to people you’d lost, and how time and death are an illusion became my mental mantra in dealing with his death. I shared the show with my father a few years later, and Iroh’s moment in ‘Tales of Ba Sing See’ was the first time I’d seen him cry since my brother had passed away. This is 68 year old man who endured vietnam. Other than the funeral, it’s the only time I’ve seen him tear up.

    My dad has told me before that part of what makes him love Iroh so much is that they’ve both lost a son but try to keep going for the loved ones they still have. This is a show with such a real and grounded story that a high school girl and an old construction worker can both feel catharsis through it.

    I doubt you remember us, but we were at your SDCC dark horse signing last year, cosplaying Iroh and Zuko. The story of avatar saved me and helped me reconnect with my dad. We’re closer than we’ve ever been because your story helped us overcome our own tragedy.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that. I don’t even know what to say, except I’m humbled that something I was a part of could provide even a small amount of help in a very difficult time for your family. And I definitely remember you and your father. I think I have a picture of you from that day. Take care.

    2. That’s so funny; why it reminds me of me because I’m a guy. And sixteen, a few months back I survived an injury, miracle one. Next miracle it was a spinal injury and I have been able to walk again. Miracle 3, Avatar, just Avatar. Because things come in threes.

  2. Before everything, I don’t want to praise you, I think you already know how much influence and what kind of influence you had on us, people from everyday life, ordinary or extraordinary.
    Instead of adding a cream on the cup of your cake, I wish to share with you something I consider a fact (and it’s mainly unrelated to this article).
    Providing us with these universal truths, in any form (I mean, through this blog or shows, of course, which were created by a team but also had flavor of your being), you unite people. You are inspiration for many as we can see. What touched my heart and teared me up was Shelley’s post. This is a proof of how actually your theories indirectly save the day. I don’t know have you absorbed that knowledge recently or you carried it in yourself all along but what is important is that you exist. And there are people like you who are humanity’s flares. You exist in time, you carry on universal ideals (food for our soul) concealed in tempting materialistic form (food for our mind and senses). Some get a chance to see those flares, some struggle on their path. In this long and dark night, people need light. You managed to unite different perspectives by giving people a glimpse of what they already had inside and what they believed in from the beginning of their life (at least, this is what I concluded after a long period of contemplating on unity in diversity but that’s a long story). I feel indescribable joy for this.
    I felt a need to share tiny part of my experience with you in hope it can serve you as your experience served me.

  3. Mike,

    I enjoyed the movie as a thriller, but I thought that how it treated the true story was somewhat indefensible. There was enough inherent tension in how it actually played out without having to artificially ramp up the tension by having the guards almost get them and race down the runway to try and catch them as the plane is taking off. It’s interesting, Michael Haneke was in a roundtable conducted by The Hollywood Reporter with other writers (fantastic video, by the way), and he said that was one part that he found reprehensible about Spielberg in Schindler’s List. He was talking about the part in the movie with the showers since it inherently played on the audiences knowledge of the Holocaust and the gas chambers used in concentration camps and that Spielberg used that to artificially inflate the tension…basically exploiting the audience. Obviously, Argo is a much less controversial example, but I still felt very manipulated when I learned that the plan actually went off without a hitch when they got to the airport.

    On a completely different note; Mike, do you know if Nickelodeon is going to have a Blu-Ray release of Book 1? Korra is gorgeous and for all of that hard work to be viewed in a lower resolution would be a travesty. I’ve been trying to find that out, and just wanted to say that it would be awesome to have a Blu-Ray of The Legend of Korra, and I know I’m not alone in that. Thanks for all the hard work!

  4. Ben Affleck continues to impress me as a writer/director/actor, and what’s great is that Hollywood is finally seeing him as a storyteller. I saw The Town and thought he had that ability to really show suspense and showing conflicted characters. Argo was a unique story because it merged the elements of entertainment & Hollywood culture with in-your-face gripping political events in history. Hollywood turned out the be the hero. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done in a film before.

  5. Stories that save someone reminded me of One Thousand and One Nights; a bitter Persian king, who believed that all women are unfaithful, had all his wives executed. He postponed the execution of his newest bride when she told him a facinating tale one night, but the tale did not have an ending, and in order for him to hear more, she would continue telling a tale, each without an ending as one story flowed into the next, every night for 1000 more nights.

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