Repeating History: Why “Argo” Won Best Picture

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When I was little, I used to watch the same movies over and over again. At one point during my eleventh consecutive viewing of The Lion King, I asked myself why. What was the point of watching a story when I already knew the ending? At first I thought that it might be because I hoped that I could influence the outcome — somehow guide the characters away from pitfalls and lead them to triumph. Perhaps on some level that is why I’ve become a writer, but it’s not the answer to the question. Instead, the real answer likely has more to do with the way that our minds engage with stories and what we expect from them in the moment. The best stories are rarely about the what, but the how, and it is precisely the how of how Argo crafted a historical event into a binding suspense thriller that won it the Oscar for Best Picture.


I called Argo as the winner back in October. Several people called it. In fact, there were few people who didn’t believe Argo would get at least a Best Picture nomination, let alone the award itself. How is it that so many of us were able to declare with such conviction that this movie was special? On top of that, Argo is based on actual events. If we did not have hazy memories of the events themselves, then most of us at least have hazy memories of a skimming over the pages of the history book that summarized the ordeal. Why is it that this film resonated with so many people to go on to become one of the most successful films of 2012?

Argo was successful because it was satisfying. It followed the expected progression from set up to confrontation to resolution with spellbinding fluidity. It walked the path of the hero’s journey from call to return with grace and victory. It hit all the benchmarks and plot points of the successful screenplay, but that still isn’t why it was good.

Argo never forgets that even though it is history, it is still entertainment and that for an audience to become invested, a story must have an emotional component. Even though the history of the story is over and done with, the emotional events that fall in the gaps between beginning and end is where our curiosity lies. The fear, the suspense, the worry, the wonder are all elements left out of objective reporting. Because the “what” is moderately well known — documented in books and interviews and a Canadian made for TV movie, there are a variety of ways in which a viewer can learn the facts. What we expect from our entertainment is to convey the “how” in a way that fulfills a need.

As movie goers, we need to be surprised and thrilled, shocked and awed. We need a reason to care and a reason to need to know what happens next. Argo lets us in on the emotional aspect of the tale in a way that grips our curiosity and attention. The nature of film allows us to sit in on the action, flies on the various walls of this story, but the skilled crafting of how events unfold is what binds us to the story like glue filling in the cracks.

The success of Tony Mendez’s Herculean task — to safely extract all six diplomats from hostile territory — is all the more satisfying because from the beginning we’ve watched him struggle and fail and try again and narrowly squeak by. The near violent confrontation out at the bazaar leaves us sweating in our seats as the tension escalates up and up and up with no relief in sight. During the nail biting climax, quick cuts leave us temporally suspended while we wait, and wait, and wait on the edges of our chairs before the airplane takes off and clears Iranian airspace.

It’s been noted that some of the scenes and events in the 2012 film are exaggerations of actual events, or complete fabrications. But it all goes toward the same end — relishing in the overlooked or disregarded moments between conflict and resolution in order to heighten the dramatic tension and emotional attraction. The so-called master of suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock commented on how he enjoyed playing his audience like a piano. And they play us well in Argo.

Aristotle spoke of the beginning, the middle and the end as essential to story crafting. History teaches us the cause and effects, the beginnings and ends. Entertainment savors the middle.

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