[Movie] Mise-en-scene Elements In Argo

Adapted from a true story, the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, movie Argo has received numerous national awards, including the Best Motion Picture — Drama and Best Director at the 70thth Golden Globe Award. From various aspects, Argo has demonstrated to be a model of contemporary Hollywood films, including the script, the editing, cinematography, etc. One of which should not be neglected: elements of mise-en-scene. Some have commented that the costume, as well as other main set design has contributed to the realism of the movie. However, this paper is aim to demonstrate how does other aspects of mise-en-scene, including the setting, blocking and acting, lighting as well as the use of props aid to serve the movie as a whole.

It is commonly praised that the setting of Argo has successfully created a believable 1970s Tehran, Iran although the shooting mainly took place in Istanbul. Looking from a different perspective, we could also argue that it establishes a, not only believable, but also authentic Iran society at such historical time era. For instance, at the scene when the protagonist, Tony Mendez, first arrives at Iran and looks through the car’s mirror, along with the vociferous crowd as well as the chaotic markets, there is a sign of “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. Underneath that, several women in hijab are enjoying fried chicken. This flashing scene is so fleeting and it may seem nonessential to the development of the story. However, by employing such set, apart from the politically tensed society, a different side of Iran is presented, creating a more complete look of the nation.

Other than reconstructing the 1970s Middle East, mise-en-scene is also served to present a symbol of tension in the movie. In the plot as these six diplomats, pretend to be a filming crew, enter the bazaar in a van on a spurious location scout, there are countless protestors, shouting and smashing the window of the van. Through the shots, we could image that the van is like an islet, while the crowd is “savage” that even could eat them alive. Even though at the moment, Iran people have no idea of that the people in the van are those missing diplomats they are looking for, the relationship between these two sets of groups is externalized with the graphic blocking of diplomats trapped inside the van terrify by the crowd. Moreover, as the massive number of crowd surrounds the six of them, such blocking also implies characters’ feeling of hopelessness and their’ emotion of fear towards the unknown future. With the visual context mentioned above, all these feelings have been amplified through the blocking of the characters.

As an important component of mise-en-scene, lighting also helps to convey the pace of intensity through out the film. In the beginning of the movie, the color tune is mainly cold: grey, brown, dark yellow, implying the harsh reality inside the U.S. embassy in Iran. Most lighting is dark and fill light is barely used as characters are discussing plans to escape from the embassy. These lighting techniques create more shadows, thus evoking more feeling of despair. However, as the shot shifts to the state department in United States, the lighting become more intense and bright, suggesting a strong contrast between the place of the incident and situation on a different continent. As the story continues, the six escapees enter the Canadian Ambassador’s Residence, the lighting shifted again. The color tone becomes relatively warmer compare with the outside turbulent world. The use high key lighting and soft lighting creates less contrast and shadow, indicating that the tension and the danger are temporally alleviated at this time as they settle down in the house of Canadian Ambassador. Another noticeable lighting technique occurred in the bazaar, where the old shopkeeper shouting to one of the diplomats, Rachel, for taking photo to his store. It is significant as the lighting for the scene comes from straight up, above the old man. By employing such uncommon top lighting in a setting of a narrow street, director Affleck highlights a sense of theatric conflict and its effects it has on the six escapees.

Regarding acting, one scene also stands out from the rest. At the airport, where the Komiteh guards are suspicious and bring the seven of them in for questioning, the eye movement for each group is uniquely noticeable. The leader of the guards looks directly to their eyes without any movement, whereas the eyes of escapees are constantly moving, trying to avoid any contact with the guard, trying to cover for their identities. The sharp contrast between theses two types of eye movement amplify the aggressiveness of the guard. However, the situation quickly switched to reverse also through the transformation of the eye movement of the actors. The guard’s eye begins to look down to the ground as the phone call verifies their company. No long wandering around, eyes of the diplomats are now able to look straight to the guards. These subtle yet compelling elements, as a matter of fact, could also be considered as insinuation of the fate of the six diplomats afterwards.

Decoration could also have implicit meanings. One of the most important properties appears in the film is telephone. Before going to Iran, Tony used telephone to connect with his son. In this scenario, it is perceived as a way to express his love towards his little boy. While he is at Tehran, telephone is an important tool to communicate with the state government and authority. Thus, disobeying the order to terminate the mission through telephone can be interpreted as a sense of struggle and responsibility for Tony. And finally, the deliberate destruction of the phone as they leave the Canadian Ambassador’s House signifies determination and resolution of their actions.

Therefore, it would be an understatement to assert that mise-en-scene in Argo helps to create a sense of realism. Rather, every visual element appears in the film, including setting, blocking, the use of lighting, acting and seemly trivial properties all serve vital functions in the process of increasing the reliability of the story, delivering message, creating tension atmosphere, shaping characters through out the film. Regardless the authenticity of the story itself comparing to what really happened, which is mostly the main criticism towards the movie, Affleck successfully constructed an intriguing Hollywood movie with the aid of the precise use of mise-en-scene.