Discussing The Sympathy And Subtext Of Argo With Oscar Winning Screenwriter Chris Terrio

argo uk blu-rayA week out from its trio of wins at the Academy Awards, Ben Affleck‘s Argo is now available on DVD and Blu-ray across the UK.

Before the awards, I sat down to speak with Chris Terrio, the film’s screenwriter and recipient of one of those Oscars. We talked about the film’s mix of fact and thriller mechanics, about its contemporary relevance and about the all-important prologue.

Here’s some of what Terrio had to tell me.

The CIA, leading up this operation, was not in a good place and they had made some very bad decisions. We’re coming out of Vietnam and a very spotty post-colonial history in which the CIA were doing a lot of bad things. At this time congressional commissions were exposing some of the bad things done by the CIA but now, this moment, this operation… well, there’s a line in the film in which somebody says “The CIA are the good guys” and for me, the implication of that line, at least for me as a student of American history, is “For once the CIA are the good guys.”

In the really complicated, amoral universe of this vampire octopus which is the CIA, here’s this man, Tony Mendes, who does a good thing, does it creatively, does it without killing anybody, without firing any American bullets.

Between 2000 and when I was writing the script in 2008, both the UK and US had been through a very dark period of foreign policy. The vampire squids of the military and governments probably were doing a lot of things they shouldn’t, where they were shooting first and asking questions later, or doing things that were not moments that we could be proud of. Looking at parallels between the present and the time period of Argo I found a CIA moment where, when the escape happens, you can genuinely be proud. Through hustle, creativity and intelligence we managed to pull off a success, managed to solve a big geopolitical crisis that could have erupted volcanically and did it peacefully and smartly.

I think it’s absolutely true that you are never writing a period story, you are always writing about your time. Of course, I tried to immerse myself in the period and tried to get the specifics right, and this was a very idiosyncratic moment in US history, but of course, I think a lot of my feelings and my interest in this moment came out of the fact that I’d just lived through the eight Bush years. I’d just been through a time where it was hard to look at any kind of foreign policy decision and feel good about it. But here was one, involving the Middle East, talking about Iran, which had been dismissed by the US president as part of his Axis of Evil and we’d write off an entire country of people by saying “They hate our freedom.” It was important for Ben [Affleck] and for me to say “There’s a reason why all of these angry people have come to the gates of the US embassy.” You can’t not watch Argo through some kind of lens of Middle Eastern current history.

There’s a very complicated post-colonial history involving the US and the UK and lots of other countries in Iran, and while we’d never try to justify the taking of hostages it was important for us at the beginning of the film to say “There was Mosaddeq, and the history of this starts in 1952.” Somebody said ‘For Americans this crisis starts in 1979 but for Iranians it started in 1952.” We have to be aware of all of that context.

The model that I wanted for the beginning of the film was like Paul Greengrass’ film Bloody Sunday where you plunge into the action immediately and think that the audience will catch up through bits and pieces but I think I’d forgotten that I’d spent a year in research of Iran. I’d forgotten that an audience coming fresh to it maybe isn’t immediately thinking of Mosaddeq  and our history in Iran. That was something Ben reminded me of so that prologue, really, is Ben’s baby. He said “You have to trust me that we can build a prologue that blends the comic book film, fantasy elements from the storyboards  and yet tells the audience something about the history of Iran so that when we get to the gates of the embassy, we understand what brought them there. We can’t look at this crowd as just another Middle Eastern crowd, angry for no reason.”

The story started taking on a life of its own and ordering my priorities. In any art your heatseeking radar is attracted to story when you know something is there on all of these different levels, when you know there’s something there on a thriller level, on an entertaining level, but also on a political or social level. And then when you’re in the story, and this sounds bullshitty, but you start letting the story tell you how to adjust the knob. Sometimes you play up the political stuff, other times you need the visceral feeling of a thriller scene. I think it’s just stumbling in the dark as you try to be true to whatever attracted you to the story in the first place.

The process is full of doubt and second guessing and you’re constantly redrawing the tennis court of how far you can step out of what really happened. Especially in the third act. We wanted the third act to feel kinetic and give you the mimetic experience of being one of the house guests. That sequence is much more adrenaline-pumped in the film than it was in real life but for an audience in 2013, you’re playing against the fact that we live in the future and know what the outcome was. The goal was to have the audience questioning what they know, to say “Even though I know that they get out, viscerally this scene is making me feel really worried.” The hope was that we could recreate the feeling that the house guests were experiencing on the plane.

We turned the volume up on that sequence quite a lot. We decided to use every genre element at our disposal. It’s a genre film at this point. We took all of the things Ben learned and did so well on The Town, took that and tried to put it in service of this geopolitical film, to squeeze every drop out of it. Ultimately it was a very emotionally gratifying decision to do this, but it was one that I pulled my hair about. These were decisions made in a room with just Ben and I, but then we saw the film with an audience and the plane takes off… and they gasped. I spoke to people who were on that plane and they told me that’s what they did. They gasped too.

Are we playing upon the audiences adrenaline, their hopes and fears and responses to genre filmmaking? Absolutely. But are we doing it in service of a true feeling and the essence of the experience of the house guests? I think so. Take my favourite cut in the film, which is the cut from champagne on the plane to the shot of the housekeeper at the crossing. That’s a moment where the airplane scene has given us empathy for the house guests but that’s immediately twisted because we see there are victims of this whole situation left behind, who aren’t celebrating, who aren’t going and being toasted.

The service of any narrative or dramatic art is to create an empathic response. I hope it’s there for the house guests and I hope it’s there for all kinds of people in the film, caught up in this tangled situation.

We had to unapologetically say “We’re making an American film, we’re not making an Iranian film” so there always were going to be moments where the revolutionaries are the antagonists. You have to get a sense of the danger of any revolution, where there are guys with automatic weapons in the street who will kill you. We had to look that in the face and say there are going to be extremists in the movie, but there are also going to be people caught up in the tides of history. You’re going to see people standing at the gate with pictures of their dead children murdered by the Shah, you’ll have some sense of the history of Iran, even within the thriller aspects of the film. Within the set-up of bad guys with guns and good guys trying to escape them you’ll understand that there is a relativism.

The world is complicated and, certainly, a CIA officer doesn’t go into this situation without dirty hands. But political decisions land in the lives of individual humans. A lot of the time these decisions are arrows shot over a fence and you don’t see where they land but they actually are hitting someone on the other side.

Thanks again to Terrio for taking the time to answer my questions. The rather exciting and engaging Argo is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, in a new extended edition, while the US discs have already been out for a few weeks.

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