Jon Robin Baitz on ‘Argo’ by Chris Terrio

Eye on the Oscars: Wrtiers' Roundup

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here’s something about the script of “Argo” that helps pace the action and works as a kind of governor on what could have been a straightforward ticking-clock earnestly riveting “this really happened” picture; it’s the fact that it’s precisely as funny as the premise suggests it has to be, in just the right places and in just the right quantities. The story, of course, is too good to be true: A CIA agent, posing as a Hollywood location scout in Iran after the revolution, is actually there to rescue American embassy workers hiding in the residence of the (very earnest) Canadian ambassador. The faux-movie in question, “Argo,” handpicked from piles of unproduceable dross for its perfect blend of schlocky Corman-esque science fiction and Arabian Nights hokum, provides the perfect cover, which screenwriter Chris Terrio takes full advantage of., as in the following exchange between the Hollywood connection, special effects expert John Chambers (John Goodman), and the CIA agent Tony Mendez, (Ben Affleck).

Chambers: (after hearing of the plan to get the hostages out) So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot. . .

Mendez: Yeah.

Chambers: Without actually doing anything?

Mendez: Yeah.

Chambers: (smiles) You’ll fit right in!

Terrio has a skill for gliding over the necessary set pieces (chases, ticking clocks, etc.), and finding the idiosyncratic exhaustion and increasing tension of the trapped diplomats and that of their hosts, the hapless incomprehension of the CIA officials in Langley when it comes to decoding the semiotics of Hollywood, which are far more inscrutable than those of the Soviets. His script is the kind of thing that Hollywood used to do effortlessly — say in “Three Days of the Condor” (or any number of Sydney Pollack films) — and reminded me of why we love what Hollywood used to be: a place of throw-away brilliance and sleight of hand that for a very long time made the most entertaining movies in the world. For grownups. With IQ’s.

Jon Robin Baitz, creator of “Brothers & Sisters,” opened his play “Other Desert Cities” at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum in December.

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