The new Ben Affleck movie, “Argo,” begins in November, 1979, with the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran. A crowd breaks into the compound, taking more than fifty Americans hostage. Six escape through the back of the building and take refuge in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. How can they be spirited out of the country, or, as the jargon puts it, exfiltrated? Back in Washington, the task falls to a C.I.A. staffer named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), from the Office of Technical Services. Various plans have been mooted, the most credible being that the hostages could make it to the border, hundreds of miles away, on bikes. Mendez, however, has an even better idea. Well, not a better one, but a more ridiculous one: how about making a movie?
Enter John Chambers (John Goodman), a prosthetics guru whose work on simian features, for “Planet of the Apes,” earned him an Academy Award, in 1969, and whose talents the Agency has called on in the past. Mendez goes to Hollywood and asks Chambers to devise a nonexistent film: find a script that requires a Middle Eastern setting, and build up a simulacrum of a genuine production. Posters, storyboards, costumes, read-throughs, buzz in the trade papers: everything will help. Mendez, posing as an associate producer, will fly to Iran, issue false identities to the six Americans, claim that they are scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction movie, and then fly them out.
Four things should be said about this pipe dream. One, it went ahead; two, it worked; three, it wasn’t declassified until 1997; and four, it makes for a good movie, and further proof that we were wrong about Ben Affleck. Few of us, watching “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” could see a way out, or back, for an actor so utterly at the mercy of his own jawline. Did he flinch at a future composed of all-American strivers, each more earnest than the last, or had he always been nipped by the directing bug? Whatever the case, Affleck was suddenly there with “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), which was more roughened by energies and doubts than all his performances combined. He took the precaution of recruiting actors more formidable than himself—Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris—to boost his endeavors, and that habit remains. “Argo” has Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador, Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s superior, and, most enjoyable of all, Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, a producer so scornfully amused by Mendez’s request that he has no option but to obey it. He does have one proviso. “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” he says.
The fake they decide upon is entitled “Argo,” made by a bogus company called Studio Six, and lovingly described by Chambers as “a twenty-million-dollar ‘Star Wars’ ripoff.” I can’t be the only person who ardently wishes that he and Siegel had gone ahead and shot it. Affleck has a lot of fun, perhaps an ounce too much, with the daftness of the film industry; when Mendez, thinking ahead to the hostages’ cover stories, asks whether you can be taught to direct movies in a day, Chambers replies, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” No one is more skilled than Goodman, with his faintly bullying geniality, at dishing up lines like that, but must we buy his character’s implication that Hollywood is just another planet of the apes? Is it good for mendacity, and nothing else?
This matters because “Argo” is, in part, a battle of the textures. When it comes to period detail, Affleck seems to take his cue from Mendez, who worked for the Graphics and Authentication Division of the O.T.S.; just look at the typography of the opening credits, with its bulbous seventies curves. Affleck’s beard and hair style suggest someone who moonlighted from the intelligence services to pose for “The Joy of Sex,” and, as you study the fashions of the era, you have to ask whether the Ayatollah’s fury was provoked by U.S. support for the Shah or, more simply, by the width of Western shirt collars. Everything about the Tehran sequences, in fact, is a rebuke to style. The camera work is anxious and twitching, with a grainy surface to match. Here, we gather, is the real thing: life hemming us in, like a mob.
Then comes the climax. If you visit the C.I.A. Web site, you can read Mendez’s account of events in January, 1980. “As smooth as silk,” he calls the hostages’ passage through the airport, whereas Affleck, chopping up the action and spinning it out, insures that no nails remain unchewed. This is absolutely his right as a teller of tales, and “Argo” never claims to be a documentary. It struck me as a bit rich, however, to make such sport of Hollywood deceitfulness and then to round off your movie with an expert helping of white lies, piling on car chases that never occurred. As for the aftermath, it goes on forever. We get hurrahs for Canadian-American relations; a shot of Mendez hugging his wife, from whom he has been estranged, with the Stars and Stripes fluttering behind; images of the actual hostages, presumably for any skeptics who still find the film implausible; and, finally, a voice-over from Jimmy Carter, lauding the efforts of those involved. All this is, frankly, uncool—a pity, because the rest of “Argo” feels clever, taut, and restrained. Why not close with the perfect coda that Mendez himself supplied? “By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received twenty-six scripts,” he wrote. “One was from Steven Spielberg.”
At the start of “Sinister,” Ellison (Ethan Hawke) and his family arrive at their new house. “I had to move here. The new story I’m writing is here,” he explains. Hang on, is he proposing this as a basic principle of literary composition? If so, C. S. Lewis must have really stacked up the air miles on the red-eye from North Oxford to Narnia. Ellison’s excuse is that he writes true crime—that shapeless and often shameless genre which is to good crime fiction what pornography is to romance. His latest project—“This could be my ‘In Cold Blood,’ ” he says—concerns a family that was hanged from a tree outside the very house where Ellison now dwells, although somehow he has failed to inform his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), of this cheerful fact. Up in the attic, he stumbles on a clue: a boxful of old Super-8 films, plus, helpfully, a projector on which to show them. Switching it on, he finds himself watching scenes not just of the hanging but of other multiple murders from the past. Who made the film? Or, rather, WHO MADE THE FILM?, as Ellison writes on his notepad. The director of “Sinister” is Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote the script with C. Robert Cargill, and we can but pray that they move on to a new bio-pic of Melville. Imagine his questions: ONE LEG ONLY? and WHY A WHALE?
The insertion of found footage into horror flicks is now so common as to be almost compulsory, like the use of vomiting in mainstream comedies. What a golden age we inhabit. Ellison, peering at the clips, spies a masked figure known as Mr. Boogie; though that sounds like a bad compilation album from 1975, it refers to a mythological thief of souls, thus plunging the film into the lair of the unnatural. Nothing wrong with that—irrational terrors beset another writer, and his long-suffering family, in “The Shining.” But Kubrick had the common sense to keep the lights on in the Overlook Hotel, and the wit to infuse a simple, carpeted corridor with unease, whereas Derrickson is playing with loaded dice. How can you hope, or presume, to crank up our dread of the inhuman when, from the start, you refuse to play by regular human rules? Throughout “Sinister,” the rooms remain darker than crypts, whether at breakfast or dinnertime, and the sound design causes everything in the house to moan and groan in consort with the hero’s worrisome quest. I still can’t decide what creaks the most: the floors, the doors, the walls, the dialogue, the acting, or the fatal boughs outside.
None of this is fair to Ethan Hawke. From “Dead Poets Society” to “Reality Bites” and “Before Sunrise” to his modern-day “Hamlet,” where he soliloquized on a video display, Hawke was the standard-bearer of the adolescent temper, as it wrestled its way into adulthood. The gauntness, the waves of intensity, the smarting humor: they all made sense, as if his duty, wherever he trod, were to spread a little Hamletry. As Ellison, he looks unhappy and lost, not because some smirking demon wants to joint him like a chicken and drag him to Hell, which can happen to anyone in this kind of film, but because the prison of middle age, dank with fatherhood and money troubles, is no place for a prince, or for a kid who once dreamed of living like one. “Sinister” is a joyless ride, and its frights are too contrived to be surprising, yet somewhere, stashed in the attic, is a much less foolish film with Hawke at its heart. The only problem is, WHO WILL MAKE THE FILM? ♦
Script Analysis: “Argo” — Part 1: Scene By Scene Breakdown
Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:
Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Major Plot Points
Thursday: Psychological Journey (Metamorphosis)
Today: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown. Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
* We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
* By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
* A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
This week: Argo. You may download the script — free and legal — here.
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
IMDb Plot Summary: Acting under the cover of a Hollywood producer scouting a location for a science fiction film, a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran in 1980.
Scene By Scene Breakdown
By Nora Barry
1–2: Set-up of embassy takeover in Tehran
3: Int. of embassy as gates are breached. Meet Mark and Bob, 2 of the 6.
4: Ext of embassy as security guard is taken
5–8: Back and forth between exterior, as the protestors swarm, and interior, as the staff deletes files. Meet Lee, Cora and Joe (3 of the 6).
9: Embassy surrounded and hostages taken 5 of the 6 exit the back door
10–11: State department reacting to embassy capture. Learn the 5 who left the embassy have been joined by a 6th (Kathy) and they’re being housed at Canadians.
12–13: White House staff and Hamilton Jordan reacting. Learn there are 60 hostages.
14: 69 days later. Yellow ribbons. Meet Tony Mendez, protagonist. He’s CIA.
15: Media coverage and interviews with Americans around the country.
15–16: CIA HQ. Meet O’Donnell, CIA. Learn Carter wants the 6 out.
17: Learn Iranians are piercing together headshots of embassy employees and will know that the 6 are not among hostages. State leading exfil of hostages
18–22: State/CIA meeting. Hear background of the 6. State proposes multiple, ludicrous, exfils. Mendez shoots them down. Learn exfil is his specialty. He is handed the gig.
22–23: The 6 around the table at home of Canadian Ambassador and his wife (The Taylors). When trouble erupts on street, the 6 hide out in a crawl space.
24–26: Escalating intercuts between hostages at embassy and Cora complaining about crawl space. Media news footage from US evening news details time lapse and frustration; Contrast with Iranian media propaganda. Americans reacting, Mendez thinking. American rage and protests.
27–28: Mendez calls his kid. See he is separated, watches TV on the phone with his son. A cheezy movie. He has Eureka moment.
29–30: Hollywood movie set. Meet John Chambers, make-up artist and sometime CIA asset.
30–32: CIA HQ. Meeting with State. Review rejected options. Mendez comes in late and pitches Hollywood option. It’s approved but he’s told not to fuck it up. See Tony on flight.
33: Escalating violence on streets of Tehran, intercut with the 6 in the Canadian house. Maid becoming suspicious. Escalating tension among the 6 in the house.
34–36: Mendez meets with John Chambers and asks for help. Chambers buys idea and takes ownership. Says if they’re going to pose as film crew, they need to set up a believable production.
37–39: Chambers takes Mendez to meet Siegel, an aging movie producer with a long and successful track record. Siegel eventually buys in and the 3 go looking for a script to use.
40: QS. Learn State still working other options.
40–44: Mendez and cohorts settle on a script and go to buy it, revealing storyline of script.
44–46: Mendez et.al. Set up production office. QS — learn Shah staff captured at airport. More production office set up and decision to launch a press event around the fake movie to drum up coverage and more believability.
47–49: Press event/live script reading, some done as VO over escalating embassy crisis in Tehran and the 6 in Canadian house. Establish parallels between the script narrative and what is happening in real life.
53: Variety reviews press event and rescue effort cut.
54: Siegel advises Mendez to go around Engel. The line, “Argo fuck yourself” is introduced.
55–56: Mendez and O’Donnell in meeting with Cyrus Vance and CIA Director Turner. Turner approves movie rescue effort.
57–58: O’Donnell drives Mendez to airport and they lightheartedly discuss capture/death so we understand the stakes if Mendez is caught. At Airport Mendez drops postcard to his son and calls Siegel and tells him the rescue is a go. Tells him to stay by phone.
59: Escalating tension among the 6. Ambassador Taylor tells them they’re getting a “visitor”.
60: Hamilton Jordan, worried about re-election, learns of movie rescue. Mendez arriving in Istanbul.
61–63: Mendez applies for Iranian visa in Istanbul. Meets a fellow spy at the Hagia Sophia, who talks him thru the papers at airport when leaving Iran.
64: Siegel in Hollywood, waiting for call. Mendez on flight to Tehran.
65: Mendez filling out entrance forms at airport. See people being arrested at airport. Mayhem. Outside in the streets, it’s chaos.
66: Mendez visiting Iranian minister of culture.
67: Mendez arriving at Canadian embassy, reveals plan to Ambassador Taylor. Taylor reveals the maid is suspicious and they made need to move fast. Mendez says they’re going in 2 days.
68: CIA. We learn the NYT and AP have discovered that the 6 are at Canadian house. CIA trying to keep it quiet but pressure is really on.
69–73: Mendez meets the 6 and lays out his plan. Bob flat out rejects it. He also doesn’t trust Mendez. The 6 argue amongst themselves while Mendez and Taylor step outside and discuss danger in which the Taylors now find themselves. 5 of the 6 agree to the plan and take their new bios.
74–75: Mendez learns the Minister of Culture has decided to take them on a site visit himself — the very next days. Mendez worried that the 6 are not ready with their cover. Has encrypted convo with O’Donnell.
75: The 6.
76–77: Komiteh HQ receiving copy of the script. Mendez tell the 6 they need to go on site visit. Joe again refuses.
78–79: One of the shredded head shots is now intact. 5 of the 6 getting ready for site visit. Mendez finally convinces Joe by telling him his real name.
80: In the van, driving to the site visit — the Bazaar. Mendez and 6 get caught in middle of protest. Tension outside and inside the van. Mendez drills them on their covers as they drive.
81–86: Intercuts: Mendez and 6 meet Minister at Bazaar. Revolutionary guards arrive at Canada house to interview maid. As 6 walk thru Bazaar, hidden camera snaps headshots. Bad confrontation between 6 and a shop keeper draws unwanted attention. We finally see the maid is determined to help Canadians and the 6. Mendez and the 6 arrive back at house.
87–88: Mendez works them harder on their background cover, trying to prep them for how rough the airport will be.
89–90: Mendez learns from O’Donnell that the resuce is being pulled.
91: Devastated, Mendez tells Taylor and they agree not to tell the 6. The 6 party, happy to be leaving.
92: Mendez goes back to his hotel and phones Chambers and Siegel to tell them rescue off. Tells them to shut down office. Instead, they decide to go for a drink.
93–94: Intercut: Tehran waking up, Mendez getting ready to burn fake Canadian passports of the 6 — changes his mind, calls O’Donnell, says he’s taking the 6 out.
94: O’Donnell is happy but has to get op back in place. Finds finance guys and asks him to re-approve Swiss air tix for the 6. Finance guy says the only person who can do that is President Carter.
95–96: Intercut: Mendez arriving at house O’Donnell chasing down approval for air tickets. Learn maid has left safely. Taylors are packed and ready to go.
96–99: Intercut: Flashback of Tony drilling hostages on what will happen at the airport, as they drive through the streets of Tehran. O’Donnell desperately trying to get White House approval. O’Donnell finally gets through to Jordan.
100: Shredded headshots have been reassembled and are being compared to photos snapped in Bazaar. Mendez and 6 arrive at Swiss Air counter and are told tix not there. O’Donnell sends approval through and Mendez asks Swiss Air to try again — success. O’Donnell sends word to Siegel and Cameron to stand by for call-but they’re out.
101: The 6 clear passport. The Komiteh peruse photos. Intercut with photos being snapped at Bazaar. Komiteh guard matches first photo.
102: 2nd check point at airport — serious grilling Komiteh guard involving senior offices in photos.
103: 2nd checkpoint, airport. They clear. CIA officer calling production office — phone rings, unanswered. Siegel and Chambers walking back lot. Swiss Air flight called.
104: Intercut: Third checkpoint. Mendez and the 6 ordered to separate screening area. CIA learning they’re not on board yet The 6 trying to convince 3rd checkpoint guards about movie.
105–106: Joe-the reluctant one of the 6-speaks in Farsi to the guards, telling them about the movie, owning the premise. Guard says they need to verify legitimacy. Mendez tells guards to call their office. Chambers and Siegel, walking back to production office from their drink, are caught waiting while a TV show shoots Komiteh pulls up outside Canadian house.
107–108: Airport guard picks up the phone to call. Siegel decides to walk thru the never-ending shoot. Guard dialing. Other guards discussing “the movie”. Phone ringing, guard getting ready to hang up — Chambers picks up and guard asks for “Kevin Harkins” (Mendez cover). Confirmed. Final boarding call. Komiteh forcing open door of Canadian house. Joe and Mendez give storyboards to airport guards.
109: Canadian house raided — it’s empty. Gate to Swiss Air closing without 6. Komiteh searching Canadian house. The 6 passing thru Swiss Air gate. The 6 and Mendez get on bus on runway to drive out to plane — and the bus stalls.
110: Komiteh running thru airport. The 6 and Mendez climbing steps to airplane. Komiteh running like crazy thru airport. Mendez and 6 getting settled plane — delay announced. Komiteh attempt to drag Swiss Air rep from closed gate.
111: Cockpit of plane, releasing throttle. Mendez and 6 begin to relax. Komiteh guard at window, sees plane begin its taxi. In control tower, air traffic give Swiss Air plane clearance to line up, Iranian police cars pull onto run way. Mendez looks out window. Plane #1 takes off — Swiss Air #2 next.
112: Komiteh rushing up steps to air traffic control. Police cars chase plane on runway. Pilot puts hand on controls. Air traffic clears for take-off. Mendez looks out window. Police cars chasing. Pilot finally sees car.
113: Pilot pushes to full throttle. Plane begins to outpace jeep. Komiteh arrive in air traffic control. They watch the flight leave the ground and begins to climb. CIA — waiting for and then hear the news the group is in the air — but O’Donnell holds off the celebration.
114: Mendez also waiting. Finally announcement that they’ve cleared Iranian airspace. The group begins celebrating. CIA begins celebrating. Siegel and Chambers begin celebrating. Back to celebration on plane — Joe apologizes to Mendez and thanks him.
115: Siegel and Chambers having a drink in the office. Iraqi border — the Canadian maid crossing over.
116: CIA celebrating — and then they learn they have to give the Canadians credit so remaining hostages aren’t penalized.
117: Ted Koppel archival footage — announcing release. Canadian government playing along and taking credit. The 6 being applauded at State in DC. Iran swearing revenge.
118: Siegel, poolside, calls Mendez, now home and they repeat the line again. Mendez handing over film paraphernalia at CIA archives, keeps one board.
119: O’Donnell tells Mendez he’s receiving Intelligence Star, but it’s classified.
120: Chambers taking down production office. Mendez goes to his wife’s house and she hugs him.
121: Mendez and son watching TV, begin to roll titles about ending of Iranian hostage crisis, awards given to Chambers, post-script on Mendez, settling on ARGO storyboard
122: Post-script titles, Mendez given his star in 1997. Black.
I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?
If you’d like a PDF of the Argo scene-by-scene breakdown, go here.
Major kudos to Nora Barry for doing this week’s breakdown.
Tomorrow: We zero in on the major plot points in Argo.
This series started here and we already have 15 volunteers to do scene-by-scene breakdowns of contemporary movie scripts.
American Hustle: Jon
Argo: Nora Barry
Frankenwenie: Will King
Hanna: John Arends
Moonrise Kingdom: iamdaniel
The Artist: Traci Nell Peterson
The Social Network: N D
The Way Way Back: Ricky
If you’d like to participate and do a scene-by-scene breakdown yourself, please indicate which script in comments. We are using scripts available on our site here.
For new volunteers and those who have already volunteered, but not sent me a breakdown yet, please do so by November 20. Thanks!
Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.
So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!
I’ll see you in comments about this week’s script: Argo.
UPDATE: John M has volunteered to do a scene-by-scene breakdown of Barney’s Version. Thanks, John!