ARGO’s Effective Use of Creative License

Having adapted a number of true stories for the screen, I found myself wondering, as I watched Argo, which moments might have been created for the movie.

I guess I’m something of an apologist for Hollywood, in that I see a need to do more fictionalizing and authorial shaping of history than aspiring screenwriters usually tend to do (or lay people tend to understand).

I have found this necessary – to give true events the kind of coherent and compelling emotional build for an audience that “real life” rarely provides. In my view, audiences tend to need us writers to do this, if they are going to be as invested, engaged, and yes, entertained, as we would like them to be.

Of course, you can never tell “only truth,” in that it’s impossible to know what people actually said and did, at the microscopic level necessary for a screenplay.

But it’s also usually necessary to do significant shaping of the material as an author, if you want to grab and hold viewers. Especially when you consider they’re not showing up to see a documentary.  They want to get caught up in the emotions as if they are there, experiencing the events themselves.

I’d have to say Argo did a stellar job at this – at least for me. The tension in my body for the entire second half of the film, while not exactly a “pleasant” sensation, was evidence of how drawn in I was.

And if some of this was due to them “milking” the possibilities of just how tense things might have gotten for this CIA agent and six fugitive American embassy workers trying to get out of Iran, I can forgive it.

I also wish to point out how effectively this movie, like virtually all successful ones, adheres to the key screenwriting principles in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books.

First, its basic concept fits clearly and squarely within one of the ten “genres”. To me, this is a classic “Golden Fleece,” where a “team” travels down a long “road” toward an extremely valuable “prize.” In a Fleece, it’s key that the prize be hugely life-changing. It’s an outer challenge (not just an “inner journey”) that will change people’s lives forever for the better if they reach it. And ideally, their lives will be much worse off if they don’t. Boy, does this movie pass that test!

Secondly, it fits most elements of the Save the Cat “beat sheet” (and classic three-act structure, in general).


I was not at all surprised to notice that the huge “stakes raiser” of Ben Affleck arriving in Tehran and meeting the six “houseguests” came precisely at the Midpoint.  This is where the stakes are supposed to be raised.  And they certainly were, as they are terrified by his plan – and the audience feels more than ever the risk and urgency of it about to happen.

It’s after this point where some of the more egregious deviations from “what really happened” occur –in order to pump up the last third of the movie.

From my quick web research, I learned that they did not make a tense day-before-leaving trip to a crowded bazaar. And the mission was not called off at the eleventh hour, forcing an “All is Lost” moment. (Followed by a “Dark Night of the Soul”, after which Ben’s character decides to do the mission anyway – a clear “Break into Three.”)

Their reservations were not canceled by the U.S. government, forcing a tense moment at the ticket counter (and a scramble by Ben’s boss to reverse this problem). And they did not face scary scrutiny just before boarding the plane.

There was no call to Hollywood to confirm their cover story (and no producer, as played by Alan Arkin, helping with that). And their was no mad chase of the plane by ground vehicles as it started to take off.

As a somewhat experienced hand at this, I sensed while watching all this that some of this was probably made up. But it didn’t hurt my enjoyment at all.

Instead, I understood the need for it. I believe that for a mass audience to feel what those seven people probably felt during this operation, those emotions needed to be externalized with such climactic events that we could experience with them.

And isn’t that a big part of the goal, with a film like this?

Yes, movies sometimes go too far with this sort of thing. And often the people involved (or experts in the subject) will be shocked by how different, or exaggerated, the movie version is.

But at the same time, the “more true” version might fall completely flat with audiences, and only please that tiny few.

It’s always a balancing act. But judging by the critical and audience reaction the movie has garnered, I’d say Argo would not be a bad model to follow…

What do you think?

Does hearing about “inaccuracies” (intentional or not) ruin it for you?

Or are you inspired to take such creative liberties with a true story of your own?

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10 thoughts on “ARGO’s Effective Use of Creative License

  1. Steven John Bosch

    I recently read part of a biography of the bandleader Benny Goodman who had a film made about his life. I remember watching it and found some scenes that were very good but some fatuous and just so wrong as to be unforgivable and unwatchable.

    According to Goodman’s biographer, the film was made after the “Swing Era” was over and shortly after the “Glen Miller Story” which was a big hit. The studio wanted another big hit, and to them the indispensable elements were the music and lots and lots of schmaltz.

    Into this walked comedian Steve Allen who got handed an unactable part as written on top of the fact that he had done little straight acting.

    What the biographer thought was totally missing was the amazing role the Goodman orchestra in a very race stratified America. Goodman’s was the first orchestra that featured black musicians. A point brought up later in Ken Burns’ series for PBS on American jazz.

    Goodman’s family life was quickly reduced to a stereotype Jewish mama, loving and domineering. The members of the band that appeared (Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton) knew that the best they were going to get out of this was something of a paycheck. What the music and the times meant to them was left out along with the grinding poverty the Goodman family endured and Goodman’s long apprenticeship in Chicago.

    There are other adaptations that ran the balance between history and art more faithfully. A classic was “The Sound of Music.” The big climax, the Von Trapps fleeing Austria with the Gestapo hot on their heels didn’t happen. The Baron and his family were under surveillance. The Baron had declared, “In the last war I fought for my emperor and for Austria. I will not fight for Germany and never for Adolf Hitler.”

    In fact, the Baron, Maria and the Baron’s children left Austria for a “vacation” in Italy. once they arrived they traveled to the American embassy and requested refugee status. The Baron could not have transferred any of his property out of Austria. He left with only enough money to make the vacation story sound true. The government seized his property and cash when it became clear they had left the country for good.

  2. Erik BorkErik Bork

    It’s interesting, I don’t disagree really with the criticisms, and could definitely see lots of room for improvement, while at the same time, in terms of grabbing me emotionally to want to see them rescued (largely by pumping up what really happened to do so), it succeeded with me. I don’t think it makes it a great movie, but I would say it’s effective in that mission. The question is, is that a worthwhile mission, if you have to make those changes to achieve the effect? I ultimately think yes, but can sympathize with those who disagree.

  3. Nat

    I’m a non-screenwriting “civilian”, just having read this article after a screenwriter friend pointed me to it after I mentioned my reaction to reading the actual history of the events after I saw the movie. That reaction was, to put it briefly: Ugh! I liked the movie a lot (before reading the history) and I guess I still have to say I like it, but I feel, well, cheated. I see how there’s a necessary balance in these sorts of things, but I feel like the film-makers crossed the line in a big way. If you want to make an action movie, feel free. I like action movies (like this one anyway). Just don’t claim to be making something “factual” or “based on facts” or “based on actual events” that strays this far.

  4. Gail

    I loved it, and I don’t understand why some people demand total accuracy in a film or play. You have to ‘externalize” the internal dramas of life to make them felt in any kind of drama. Read books or watch documentaries if that’s an issue – but be warned that even those formats force ‘choices’ on their authors, and no two people see even a real event in quite the same way. Personally, I came away from ‘Argo’ with a deeper understanding of those issues, which I was too young to fathom at the time and I believe the ‘bigger picture’ of all that was the real aim and I give them all kudos for how well they managed it. The ‘intro’ technique, however made me grin, which was surely borrowed from the animated feature, “Persepolis” (another great film on the subject).

  5. Brigit

    Except for the jacked-up phony ending, I found Argo to be exceptionally plodding. None of the hostages are differentiated, while Afflect virtually sleepwalks through the entire movie. Thank God Goodman and Arkin were on hand for comic relief. Hollywood did this type of political thriller so much better back in the 70’s.

  6. Jim Makichuk

    First of all, I was surprised how poorly written the script was (and I am a working screenwriter), it seemed that they were looking for something that could be suspenseful about some guys talking about a fake movie. Secondly, being Canadian, it was upsetting to see how they changed much of the real story, which took place in the Canadian ambassadors home in Tehran. That was the real story and a better movie was made some years ago. The LA story was boring and even Alan Arkin and John Goodman had to stretch to say words that were pretty cliched. And by the way, when Ben opened his movie at the Toronto Film Festival last Sept, he never invited the ambassador Ken Taylor (who saved the 6 Americans and took major risks to get them out) to the screening. Classy, eh?

  7. Mike Smitty

    I agree with the article. I actually set a stopwatch during the movie so I could see if the breaks were where they were supposed to be and most of them were right on. I thought the poetic license they used to make it more exciting worked very well. I think one of the keys to Argo’s success is that it showed us two worlds that most people are interested in- the inner workings of government and the inner workings of movie production. The way Argo stuck to Save the Cat rules and brought the audience into these two worlds made it a perfect hit.
    I did think it was obvious that the bazaar scene was added for excitement, I didn’t think it fit in story and interrupted flow. But Save the Cat does say that the audience needs a break sometimes from the main story, so I guess it was needed. I just thought they could have come up with something more creative.
    I did think that a lot of the end was added for excitement, like when the plane was being chased by cops, but that’s what adds to a great ending, how many Die Hards and others have those same scenes and we eat them up, not getting upset because we know it’s not a true story? Props to Ben Affleck. Haven’t been a big fan, although I did enjoy The Town, I think he is really getting it.

  8. Erik BorkErik Bork

    I don’t think so — I had the exact same thoughts. My wife was like, “Maybe she hadn’t seen the beard before, and that was a real turn-on.”

    I think the movie overall was a bit thin on any sort of development of the main character, and in “Dramatica” terms, pretty much lacked an “impact character”. Meaning that it only had the “overall story” (the adventure to free the houseguests) to hook the audience with, and operated primarily just on that level. Fortunately, that was so compelling (especially in the second half, I thought), that the overall result seemed to be a movie that “worked” as opposed to “didn’t work.”

  9. BR

    The movie definitely sucked me in and I agree that a major part of its success was due to its simplicity– get those people out of Iran. For some reason, though, toward the very end, I felt like it was going a little too far.


    When the armed forces started to chase them down on the runway, I almost laughed. I thought, come on, enough already!

    Bottom line: I have no problem with dramatizing, embellishing and fictionalizing as need be, but I have a limit. I think it’s just a matter of taste, quite frankly. By that point in the movie, I had been taken for enough of a ride.

    The only thing I would have liked to have seen just a pinch more of was the personal transformation of the CIA agent. Didn’t quite grasp how he had changed so that he could go home to reunite with his estranged wife. Was I missing something?

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