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Technology is a dramatic disconnect in movies

Ben Affleck after screening him film during an interview by Richard Roper. Monday Sept 10 2012 | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Ben Affleck, after a screening of him film during an interview by Richard Roper. Monday Sept 10, 2012 | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:33PM

Prior to a screening of the Oscar-buzz movie “Argo” at the AMC River East theaters in Chicago on Monday night, I asked the audience how many were born after the 1979-1981 time period in which the film is set.

About three-quarters of the crowd raised their hands. Welcome to Contemporary American History, today we’re going to see a movie!

Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, “Argo” is one of those “inspired by true events” stories that really does gain resonance because you’re thinking, “This pretty much happened in real life.”

As the whole world watched and waited to see what would happen to the 52 people held hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran, virtually nobody knew about the six others who had managed to slip out before the takeover, finding refuge in the Canadian Embassy.

Knowing it’s only a matter of time before the Ayatollah Khomeini’s henchmen figured out six Americas were unaccounted for, the CIA hatches a number of outlandish escape schemes, settling on the “best of the worst ideas”: Affleck’s exfiltration expert Tony Mendez is going to go undercover as a producer scouting locations for a sci-fi film called “Argo,” and the six Americans will pose as members of the Canadian crew.

More on the film when it opens in October. For now, suffice to say the Oscar talk is warranted.

SPOILER ALERT: In nearly every frame of the film, we’re keenly aware of the time period, whether it’s because of the shockingly large (and dead-on accurate) eyeglasses and dubious haircuts, the newscast footage featuring young lions such as Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel — or the technology of the time, with CIA operatives rushing to their offices to take calls on landlines, Mendez getting up from his chair to turn the channel on the TV and Iranian kids piecing together shredded documents in an attempt to uncover American secrets.

You set this same story in 2012 and the movie would last four minutes. That’s about how long it would have taken the Iranians to discover there were six people missing, find them and drag them into the streets.

Past perfect for drama

Affleck and I did a Q-and-A following the screening, and I asked him if the technological limitations of the time period opened the doors to creating a Hitchcockian suspense puzzle that doesn’t depend on geeks using computers to obtain key information within seconds.

“Absolutely true,” he said. “[In modern films], Tom Cruise is wiping his hand around while looking up at some giant screen with all this information on it. … We didn’t have to do scenes where the [protagonist] suddenly can’t get a cell phone signal.”

The blogger extraordinaire Rich Juzwiak put together a montage of dozens of films with the “No Signal” cliché, including just about every horror movie made in the last 15 years. “Jeepers Creepers 2,” “Vacancy,” “The Hitcher,” “Hush,” “The Mist,” “The Hills Have Eyes” (“Ninety-seven percent nationwide coverage and we find ourselves in the 3 percent”), “30 Days of Night,” “Cellular,” “Saw V,” “Wrong Turn,” “The Wicker Man,” “Red Eye,” “Untraceable,” “Disturbia,” etc., etc., etc.

But if your movie is set even in the relatively recent past — be it the fact-inspired “Argo” or a film such as “No Country for Old Men,” released in 2007 but set in 1980 — there are myriad dramatic situations that can’t be resolved by someone logging onto a magic computer that can do just about anything, or employing other cutting-edge technology.

Of course you can still make edge-of-the-seat thrillers set in present day, but think of how many action films go the superhero or futuristic route so they can invent new barricades for the protagonist to hurdle. Or if a film is set in the “real” world, the filmmakers have to include scenes where the technology is thwarted so the characters have to resort to other means to achieve their goals.

And think of TV series such as “The Walking Dead” or the upcoming “Revolution,” in which there’s a whole different set of obstacles to be overcome because the apocalypse has stripped the world of most modern techno-conveniences.

In real life, we’d be lost without our iPhones and our Droids and our laptops. In the movies, a world in which these devices had yet to be invented is fertile ground for dramatic creativity.

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