Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’sthe only thing that ever has.” Argo is the perfect example, both as story and in its storytelling, of just how true Ms. Mead’s statement is.
Argo is the dramatization of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran. And while the story itself is compelling, showcasing a broad range of human ingenuity, imagination, creativity and courage, it is the construction of the story that really allows the audience to do what it does best: disappear into the movie. From the opening scene of the film, we are whisked away into this breakneck tale that moves us, white-knuckled, through the thrilling and often mysterious worlds of espionage, insider Hollywood, and an international hostage crisis. Not a single second is given over to narrative fluff and moments of life-or-death tension are brilliantly tempered by moments of dark comedy. The dialogue is clever and strong and not a word is wasted. The pacing is pitch-perfect as the plot relentlessly advances to that final moment when … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, the script is a masterpiece. If you are a screenwriter, find a way to get your hands on this script and study it until the pages disintegrate in your hands.
The script, of course, is only part of what makes a movie like Argo work. So much of a film’s success sits in the hands of the director. Ben Affleck is rapidly becoming one of our most promising directors. When you get a chance, take a look at The Town, also directed by Mr. Affleck. You will see within its frames a stunning instinct for storytelling. In Argo, Mr. Affleck not only generates and captures authentic, subtle performances from his entire cast, but also (and this is a great tribute to him) from himself as the protagonist in the story. With the presence of the protagonist reined in, the other characters (the hostages, dignitaries, CIA operatives, ambassadors, and even the Iranian rebels) are allowed their due. This is no easy feat – dangerous even – because you run the risk of weakening the story and diminishing the ‘hero’ experience for the audience. But Mr. Affleck’s subtle execution of this balance between characters and events is one of the great strengths of the film, primarily because the Argo operation was not about one man. It was about a complicated and delicate team effort that hung on the twin threads of trust and hope. Mr. Affleck’s brilliant directorial choices allow that tension to ring true.
During Bill Clinton’s run for the White House, the motto of his campaign became, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” Many a filmmaker (and many a politician) have enjoyed success when they have recognized and embraced the central and primary goal of their efforts. For every filmmaker, the motto should be, “It’s the Story, Stupid.” This is what Mr. Affleck seems to understand so well.
So, in this month of giving thanks, I offer up gratitude for the blessings in my life (which include all of you) and also offer up a message of thanks to Mr. Ben Affleck for reminding us that powerful storytelling isn’t found in over-the-top Hollywood heroes, but in the subtle ways we call upon the best of ourselves in the most trying situations.