Ben Affleck's 'Argo' Latest Substory to Transcend Hollywood & History
by Tyler Wantuch
November 22, 2012
This year's Argo is the most recent example of a growing, modern storytelling technique. Director Ben Affleck avoids the traps that historical, larger-than-life stories are cursed with by employing the substory. This narrative style is used to investigate smaller unique stories that take place within the backdrop of a larger historical event. The stories themselves tend to be strong enough to stand alone, but are interlaced with a powerful historical landscape that intensifies their meaning. This eliminates nearly every issue an epic presents. It forces filmmakers to be focused and avoid drawn out backstories and contrived romances.
Pearl Harbor and Titanic are just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended) of these kind of historical films that while successful or even critically acclaimed like the latter, exist as long drawn out films, spanning around three hours, with a wide net of characters to catch the historical action at various times in various locations. While a lengthy film isn't necessarily a bad thing, Argo succeeded by allowing the history to envelop our characters while not beating it down our throats over an extended storytime. This technique probably has its roots hidden in pre-modern cinema, but it hasn't truly become over popular until recently.
Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is a prime example of one of the most successful deployments of the substory, although I'm sure this will be up for debate. With this film, Spielberg set out to change the World War II movie landscape. He wanted to create an honest take of WWII that could be personal enough to connect with still-living veterans, but also highlight the brutal violence of war. In order to prevent the film from being bogged down by the typical larger storylines that accompany war films, he smartly centered his film around a particular platoon with the mission to bring Private Ryan (Matt Damon) home.
To further tie the unit into the lore of WWII, they would find themselves in the heart of famous situations (none more famous than Omaha Beach on D-Day). The historical locations and events were not made clear to the audience. Instead the viewers, much like a lowly foot soldier, had to piece together clues from small talk or radio transmissions. In order to follow the larger events of the war, the audience had to immerse themselves not only into the story but the background noises. Spielberg's method worked better than expected. Suddenly this film had a much stronger personality than previous WWII films. We were wrapped in the bitterness of warfare at the smallest level, but thoroughly entrenched in a historical backdrop.
We see this again in 2009 with Clint Eastwood's Invictus. Much like WWII, the historical footprint of the end of apartheid in South Africa is expansive. In order to fully understand its effect on South Africa, we would need a sweeping epic. Nelson Mandela alone would need a trilogy in order for us to appreciate his impact on society. To tackle this book-turned-movie, director Clint Eastwood would take a feather from Saving Private Ryan's cap and find a more personal substory.
The simple story of a newly appointed President Mandela (Morgan Freeman) using the National Rugby team to bridge the gap between upper class white and lower class black South Africans, works well. It focuses only on the interactions Mandela has directly or indirectly with the rugby team, while surrounding the story with sound bites and images that submerge the viewer into the torn country. We avoid drawn out political drama and violence. Instead, the cultural tension is shown by what flags are flown or how people watch the matches - in interracial or segregated groups. The history is all around the audience as they celebrate the South Africans' victory, but with the substory, it's presented in a bite-sized portion.
In The King's Speech, another historical substory rears its head. After the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the private stories of the monarchy during WWII became fair game for publication. No story was more sought after than the relationship between the two princes, the heir apparent Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) and the over-shadowed figure of Prince Albert (Colin Firth). The two had distinct personalities: the audacious playboy and the meek younger brother. Edward would give up the throne to wed a twice divorced woman on the eve of WWII, leaving Albert in a tough situation within the family and outside of it.
Instead of delving into this story like a Lifetime drama, director Tom Hooper gives us another substory. We learn all about Albert's rise to the throne via information swirling around a deep relationship between the young king and his vocal coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The ups and downs of their friendship take center stage while the royal gossip and decision making slide sublimely into the background. A perfect design to not only present King George VI in a respectable light, but also to avoid kicking too much dirt on the Royal family in the end.
With these films, we have traveled a path where recent films have used a substory technique for similar but different reasons. Saving Private Ryan wanted to bring the reality of WWII from the foot soldier level to the silver screen; Invictus sought to shrink down an enormous historical event into an easily-consumed portion; The King's Speech desired to tell a tale that hinted towards royal drama but didn't drown in it. All three of these films could have been more ambitious, but instead they were kept grounded and personal.
Argo also follows this style of storytelling; the film's primary location is a political hot button - Iran - but, with the exception of the opening monologue, it manages to stay out of politics. Affleck stays tight with the camera in a traditional thriller style, preferring close-ups and avoiding unnecessary establishing shots. This causes the background to feel even more swirling and chaotic than normal. Much like the camerawork, the story is laser point focused, keeping our attention just as narrow. Meanwhile, the world outside the main characters is lifted from photos and TV clips. The historical landscape is coming alive around the actors.
This is a crucial aspect of the substory as it turns the background into an omnipresent character that gives us minute insights into the larger events. It's up to the audience to piece these bits of information together. Affleck does not shy away from filling the backdrop with piles of information. We grip our seats and hold our breath as the group escapes, but walk away with a lot more to think about. How many different ideas and events circled our characters? Was the film being political? How much was clarified about the actual hostage crisis and why were there so many questions left unanswered? Suddenly the amazing substory has struck again, pushing our brain through a simple storyline, while bombarding us with historical happenings.
The new form gives two advantages that past filmmakers did not have. First of all, filmmakers don't need to spell everything out. With so much access to historical events via Wikipedia and Google, there isn't any need to talk about a historical event at length. If a movie patron is interested in the larger background story, they can learn much more about it on their own time. In fact, I am sure many people pursued such information just to confirm or debunk the "truths" of the film (see Slate.com). We need to face the fact that filmmakers are expecting more knowledge from their audience, and impressively, modern viewers are up to the task.
Following confusing plot-lines, inferring larger background stories through small quips, and understanding complex plots that extend through four or even eight movies are only the beginning of what the modern film audience is capable. With this smarter audience, filmmakers can spend less time holding our hands and more time telling a unique and often times more personal story. Which leads us to the second advantage of being a modern filmmaker. Thanks to the constant barrage of technology, we have become kings of compression. Day in and day out, we peruse countless web pages looking for something that catches our eye. We are becoming trained hunters of the unique and bizarre. No one wants to watch a tired old plot about hostages being tortured, nor do they want to see rich princes fighting over a throne.
Instead we are drawn to the unique stories that can deeply grip an audience: the CIA staging a movie to save political hostages, a young king overcoming a speech impediment, or a rugby team uniting a country. The historical substory is a remarkable modern method of storytelling. Its distant cousin, the historical epic, may be a dying species with its high cost and long running time. Maybe we'll see a resurgence sometime later on. Either way, the substory, especially as it exists in Ben Affleck's Argo, is here to stay.