ARGO is an interesting historical drama, but that’s not why I loved it. I loved it because it’s a masterful suspense thriller with a very simple, powerful, clean through line. It is a textbook perfect answer to the question: How do you increase interest and suspense to an existing story? To show you what I mean, picture (if you will) the following simple situation.
A man is walking from his front door to the corner mailbox to mail a letter. Not a terribly interesting idea, right? So how do you spice it up? First, we give the man a higher stake in his task. Maybe the letter contains his daughter’s application to college, which has to be postmarked that day. This makes us care about whether or not he mails the letter.
In addition to the high stakes, we need to throw in some obstacles for him to overcome along the way. Maybe it’s a winter day so he has to walk through heavy snow drifts that his neighbor didn’t shovel off the sidewalk, and maybe his other neighbor backs out of the driveway without looking and almost runs him over.
Now that we care about whether he mails the letter and we have some obstacles to keep us interested, we have to add some suspense to make us even more interested. So, let’s add the mail truck. It’s parked at the corner, and the mailman is emptying the mailbox into his bag, and will soon be driving away. Now not only are we invested and entertained, we’re on the edge of our seats as well. We’ve taken the mailing of a letter and turned it into a story worth telling. (Hopefully not a long one in this case, but one you’d probably stick with until the end).
ARGO is essentially the same sort of story. It’s about a man who needs to get six people to the airport on time. Around that, the rest of the movie is a beautifully rendered, elaborate frame, designed to get us invested, raise the stakes, and pile on the suspense (and how). I know ARGO is based in fact, but the details are presented (and no doubt enhanced) to create suspense.
Add to all this the rich historical setting and some stellar performances, and you’ve got a crowd pleasing hit.