Monday, April 15, 2013

Once Again, Fantasy Saves the Day

Last weekend, I watched Argo, the film that won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture--and I really enjoyed it.  Based (fairly loosely) on real-life events, Argo tells the story of the six American embassy workers who were trapped in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.  Hidden in the home of the Canadian diplomat, the embassy workers needed a way out of Iran, but given increasing scrutiny from the Revolutionary Guard, exfiltration seemed impossible.

Enter Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration specialist who dreamed up a scheme to pass off the embassy workers as a Canadian film crew, scouting a location for a fake movie called Argo.

Many reviews mention that it's no surprise that Argo won Best Picture, as it's essentially a love letter to Hollywood about the power and importance of movies. 

But I would take it a step further and say that not only is Argo a tribute to movies generally, but it is also a tribute to the real-world power of science fiction and fantasy.

Why?  Well, because the made-up film that Mendez is claiming to make is a science fiction film (that originally was based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light), set in a far-off planet with a "vaguely Middle-Eastern feeling."

It might seem like it doesn't matter what the fake movie is about--it could have been a political thriller, a romance, a coming of age story.  But I would suggest that it is incredibly significant that it's a science fiction story; because the story of the film is so preposterous, so out-of-this world, the reality of the film itself is never scrutinized, and the fake film crew is able to leave the country.

If the fake film had been a romance, for instance, all sorts of practical, real-life questions about the film would have occurred to the Iranian cultural minister--chiefly, why make this film in Iran during a time of unbelievable political tension?--but because the subject of the film itself is so fantastic, these real-world considerations are overlooked.  In the film, when the embassy workers arrive at the airport, the Revolutionary Guard checks their story--Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) provides drawings of space battles and aliens, and Joe Stafford (played by Scoot McNairy) narrates the story, complete with blaster noises.  The guards get caught up in the story, and apart from the one phone call the head guard makes to the production studio, no probing questions are asked once the film's story has been told.

Does this mean that science fiction and fantasy has no impact on reality, then?  As Argo clearly shows, of course not.  Rather, the initial disconnect between fantasy and reality makes the story more appealing, more approachable, less initially threatening, perhaps, thus paving the way for a narrative that sticks with people and that can influence their thinking over the long term.

And that is why, even though Mendez's plan is described as "the best bad idea" for getting the embassy workers out of the country, it was actually a really good one that showed a keen awareness of the importance of genre and the power of fantasy.

By Jen Miller