Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Argo Understands Bomb Theory

A film like Argo, the third directorial effort by actor Ben Affleck, shouldn't really keep audiences on the edges of their seats. After all, it's based on a historical event, namely the extraction of six Americans from a Canadian ambassador's house in Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. CIA operative Tony Mendez managed to spirit them out of the country by having them pose as Canadian crew members for a fake SF film. Anyone with a long-running memory or a Web-equipped smartphone can figure out Argo's ending before the previews stop. So why does Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praise the movie for its "nerve-frying suspense"? Simple: Affleck understands Bomb Theory.

The term dates back to Alfred Hitchcock, and while the concept almost certainly predates the fat man, he provided its most catchy formulation:
There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
Agro aptly displays the distinction. There's zero surprise because, as stated above, we know how the story plays out. Yet Affleck ratchets up the tension by telling everything. We see the six Americans struggling with cabin fever even as their compatriots in the embassy have guns held to their heads. An Iranian maid wonders to the Canadian ambassador's wife just how long her strange houseguests plan to stay indoors. Crews of child laborers painstakingly reassemble the embassy's shredded documents, their progress punctuating the period by which the revolutionaries will realize that some people made it out of the compound. When Mendez arrives on the scene, one of the Americans steadfastly refuses to play along with the cover story, finding it ridiculous. Suspicious phone calls begin. During a trip to establish the group as a film crew, Iranian agents surreptitiously snap photos of them. The U.S. government decides to pull the plug mid-mission, only to have Mendez's CIA comrades frantically scramble to persuade high-level officials of its viability even as he's on his way to the airport. You get the idea: Even familiar tales can turn tense through skillful revelation.

(Picture: CC 2008 by arash_rk)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

The problem is that he's too good at bomb theory--I knew he was falsifying history a early into the invented 40-minute climax--and not because of historical knowledge. I simply knew that life doesn't often feature so many improbable near-escapes or moments of split-second timing.

The funny thing is--I wouldn't have been so distracted if it had been fictional. I thoroughly enjoyed Skyfall, when Bond follows a spy only to witness his assassination. But while that sort of split-second timing is incredibly exciting in a fictional thriller, and I believe it at the time, I somehow can't accept it in a nonfictional work unless I'm reasonably sure that it exists.

Now this shouldn't take away from Affleck's artistry, by any means. Certainly he pulled off a masterfully suspenseful ending to a movie, and even if he had to invent every single roadblock they were well invented. But it does bring up a strange paradox:

The Town felt much more real, because it didn't pretend to be other than what it was.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(The fact-checkers did confirm--and even exceed--my suspicions.)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

(Honestly, I'm also bitter because a more realistic story could have involved SF greats from Ray Bradbury to Jack Kirby.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Really liked this one. I know there are inaccuracies but I don't think they are important. Although I have a historian friend who would say otherwise.

Loren Eaton said...

One of the things I think we'll all readily admit about Hollywood is that it's really bad at getting history right. Viritually every (fairly recent) historically based film is off-kilter in some significant way. I'm sure Argo's no exception. But as a story, Affleck did a lot right. The factual stuff is for another blog post!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Agreed, I'm just trying to figure out why the inaccuracies spoiled the fun for me, as a viewer.

I think that what it boils down to is that the film lead me to expect more realism than it gave me. The scenes where they have to explain the movie's plot, or where they barely escaped from armed soldiers, or where their photos are taken in a bazaar--all of these moments were supposed to feel more tense because they actually happened. But they *didn't* actually happen, and I could tell. So instead of heightening the tension, it lowered it for me.

Loren Eaton said...

That's completely fair, and I understand it. I felt similarly about A Beautiful Mind. John Nash grew up in the same area as my father, and my uncle knew Nash's brother. Ron Howard fudged a lot of the details and that kind of ruined the movie for me.