Beat Breakdown #1: Argo

Here’s a new series I’m going to take a crack at. It works like this: we’ll start by taking a look at the screenplay of an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning feature film, and try to identify and briefly discuss the important beats. Maybe I’ll keep up with this feature, maybe I won’t. I’m just such an unpredictable, free-spirited type of guy, you know?

In any case, today we’ll be taking a look at the the Oscar-winning 2012 political thriller Argo, written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck.

Argo Pic Horizontal

A .pdf of the screenplay can be found here.


The film opens with the famed attack on the US embassy in Iran in November of 1979. During the attack, fifty embassy staff members are taken hostage, though six manage to escape and hide inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. Meanwhile, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, begins concocting a daring, go-for-broke rescue mission involving secreting the six erstwhile captives out of the country by posing as a film crew scouting for exotic locations.


(Pages 1-9) The action begins immediately as a group of angry Iranian activists break down the gate of the American embassy in response to Jimmy Carter’s decision to grant the Shah of Iran asylum during the Iranian Revolution. Instantly, we’re faced with a simple and effective conflict: the bad guys have taken hostages, and the good guys want to get the hostages back. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then this snappy, effective opening might luncheon with the Queen.


(Pages 27-44) So things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, as they inevitably must, and Tony Mendez is called to action (literally, on the telephone) to restore the status quo—that is, rescue the hostages before they’re ground up for fertilizer. In what we experts (read: random pleb) refer to as the “Eureka moment,” Mendez is on the phone with his kid one night when he notices Planet of the Apes playing in the background, thus providing the inspiration for the hair-brained scheme that is to follow. From there, we’re treated to a sort of odyssey of colorful characters and clandestine meetings as one-by-one the various specialists are brought on board Fellowship of the Ring style to aid in what would eventually come to be known as the Canadian Caper.


(Pages 80-86) As per usual with your standard three-act dramatic structure, things get real bleak real fast in the second act. There’s an almost audible clunk marking the shift of tone between the Happy Hollywood Fun-Time Hour in the first act and the point where we spend the rest of the film with the escapees in Iran, miserable, hunted, and afraid. The juxtaposition between the two, however, is a masterful touch, serving to drive home how high the stakes actually are. Of course, what is a Hollywood film without some good old-fashioned sensationalism? Accordingly, the story has to contrive an excuse for the hostages to go out in public, resulting the bazar sequence, wherein the escapees attract unwanted attention from an antagonistic shopkeeper, nearly blowing their cover in the process.


(Pages 87-92) One of the other major plot points takes us back to the States, allowing us to get embroiled in the administrative side of things. There’s an ongoing conflict between Mendez and his supervisor, Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donell, who, like any good authority figure in a governmental hierarchy just can’t resist stepping on the toes of his subordinates. O’Donell threatens to shut the operation down on the grounds that it’s too risky, but Mendez is loath to see all of his hard work go to waste. Even with its predictable outcome, this sub-plot is handedly well and its last-minute resolution adds an extra basting of adrenaline to the conclusion.


(Pages 95-113) When we talk about the crisis, we’re referring the chain of events, often becoming incrementally tenser, leading up to the climax. The climax itself, however, is the point of no return. Argo’s crisis, that extended and incredibly tense sequence during which the escapees, accompanied by Mendez, waltz their Western-sympathizing selves through a remarkably airtight security checkpoint. For the sake of drama, all the possible ways in which our motley crew can be sniffed-out are avoided or solved at the last possible moment, allowing them hightail it to safety while still retaining possession of their limbs. The climax itself occurs moments later, at the point when their plane actually takes off. The wheels leave the tarmac, the perusing Iranian officials shake their fists with impotent rage, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the six luckiest McGuffins in all of existence got away safely.


(Pages 114-122) It’s wheels-up in Iran: cut to reaction shot of CIA staff members going berserk in celebration. Not exactly original, but it gets the job done, I suppose. As the audience decompresses from the tense excitement of the preceding sequences, we learn which governmental department gets the credit, who has to share, and who’s bummed about it. Moreover, Mendez himself is bestowed certain honors, but owing to the degree of secrecy surrounding the whole enterprise, they’re supposed to be classified. Ah, but surely reuniting with his family after such a close brush with death is enough reward for old Mendez, who we’ve all come to love and respect. So all’s well that ends well, except for the other fifty-two hostages, obviously.


Argo Review


Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Argo is one such story, in that it’s so ludicrous it couldn’t have been made up. During that glorified dick waving competition known as the Cold War, when the U.S government instigated coups and regime changes every other day, it sometimes found itself needing to get its people out of unfriendly situations in a hurry. Argo is the story of one such exfiltration mission, and I’m glad to say that it’s a fine example of how an espionage thriller should be done.

Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, Argo owes it’s success to it’s star-studded cast which includes veterans like John Goodman as the real life makeup guru and C.I.A moonlighter John Chambers, and Alan Arkin as old-school Hollywood producer Lester Siegel. Bryan Cranston also makes an appearance as C.I.A supervisor Jack O’Donnell, who, together with Affleck as exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, creates a nice contrast between the hard nosed, no nonsense government men and the almost goofy antics of the Hollywood movie moguls they’re cooperating with. The acting is virtually beyond reproach, and is a testament to Affleck’s expert casting choices.

Also worth mentioning is the unique visual style of the film. Everything, from costumes to locations to tech, is faithfully recreated and the attention to detail is profound. It might have been my imagination, but I even thought I saw some 70’s-esque grainy quality in the picture itself. These effects weave seamlessly together to produce a visually engrossing film which keeps the audience rapt, and makes the 2 hour run time feel significantly shorter. The only visual issue I take with the film is that several shots occasionally zoomed out in order to show a sweeping landscape or massive structure, but instead of maintaining the consistent visual style, these shots were blatantly, not to mention rather poorly, computer generated and distracted me momentarily. Although admittedly small, they were substantial enough to jar me back to reality and make me realize that I was sitting in a theater watching some flashing lights on a wall; always an unfortunate occurrence when the objective of a film like Argo is to build and maintain immersion.

If I had had to select one key element that made the film was so successful, it would be the juxtaposition of the vastly different tones of the first and second acts. In the film’s opening act, it’s established that there is an issue of national security in Tehran, and that it needs to be solved quickly and quietly. The interim is filled with Mendez flying to Hollywood to assemble a team of quirky and engaging characters in order to pice together is unlikely escape plan. The dialogue was snappy and humorous and could have easily made for a successful, comical satire of the film industry as a stand alone piece. In the second act however, when Mendez travels to Iran to put his plan into action, the tone shifts gears from comical to darkly tense with an almost audible clunk. Instead of coming across as inconsistent, however, the shift serves to emphasize that the fun and games are over and that shit is definitely getting real.

The amazing thing about Argo is that it manages build suspense and make clear how much is at stake without a single bullet being fired or anyone being killed during the entire course of the film. Rather, the suspense stems from the implications of what would happen if the plan were to be discovered. The film is rife with incredible, tension building scenes, namely the bazzar and airport security sequences, which are exactly what an espionage thriller should consist of.

Argo was, above all else, a fun experience. It was well worth the price of admission, which is more than I can say for a lot of films in theaters nowadays. It is clear that Affleck has proved himself a capable director. The only pitfall in his success, however, is that all of his future works will inevitably compared to Argo. Not a bad thing in itself, but it would be a shame indeed if such a talented director were to peak so early in his career. Go see the film, and remain cautiously optimistic about Affleck’s future in the industry.