Oscar season is finally starting to really heat up, and right out of the gate Ben Affleck’sArgo looks poised for Oscar gold. The story of how the CIA managed to free six American hostages trapped in a Canadian embassy during the Iranian revolution, the film is an absolutely stunning work, with Affleck creating an intoxicating and immersive atmosphere while balancing a tone that wonderfully lobs back and forth from laugh-out-loud funny to nails-digging-into-armrest tense. It’s the best movie the director has made thus far, which is high praise when discussing the man behind Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but he’s earned it. Hence why I was so pleased to hear Affleck talk about his latest work at a recent press event in Los Angeles.
In anticipation of Argo’s domestic theatrical release, members of the media gathered at the Beverly Hotel – a location featured in the movie – where Affleck and members of his cast and crew participated in a press conference and answered journalists’ questions.
Off the bat Affleck discussed what it was about the true life thriller that led him to want to make it his third directorial effort, and, as you probably could have guessed given the praise floating around the film, it was all about the screenplay written by Chris Terrio. “They say, ‘Oh yeah, this our best script,’ and usually you think that's an executive kind of hyping you on it, and it really was pretty incredible,” Affleck said. “I was amazed.” After signing on he recalls reading books and watching documentaries about the real event and then going back to Terrio and asking him how he managed to create a three act structure out of what could have been “a 10 hour miniseries.”
But Affleck doesn’t just serve as Argo’s director – he’s also the film’s star. Playing Tony Mendez, the man who develops and executes the plan to get the hostages out under the guise of being a Canadian film crew, Affleck says that what led him to take the part on was the mix of humor, espionage and truth. Oh, and the fact that he had ties to the man in charge of the production.
Said the star, “I wanted to play him because…the script was really interesting, and what struck me almost right away was you have this thriller, and then in equal measure this kind of comic Hollywood satire, and this really intricate real life CIA spy story, and it's all based on truth. So that seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusual movie to be part of, and I really wanted to direct it. And then this sort of actor side of my brain, that is still in that phase of auditioning and trying to make connections and get work, asked the director of that movie for a job, and the director was in a tough spot and had to say yes.”
As both a director and an actor, Affleck also had a big ace up his sleeve during production in that the real Tony Mendez was open to talking with the cast and crew about his experiences. By the time that the director had a chance to meet with him, Mendez was already “steeped in the movie,” having already spoken to the author of the article that inspired the film, Joshuah Bearman, as well as producer Grant Teslov and Terrio. It was during Affleck’s meeting with him, however, that the reality of the world he would be reinventing for the feature dawned on him.
“He wanted to meet me at this old famous CIA bar in Georgetown and he was telling me it was where Aldrich Ames passed names of the American agents in Russia to his Russian handlers,” Affleck recalled. “And when he told me that it kind of sunk in all of a sudden that it was real. This is a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake. It wasn’t sliding down the roof and kicking in the window and shooting three guys – the kind of thing that we in Hollywood tend to think of the CIA. It’s a real thing and it’s out there with these folks making these sacrifices for us every day.”
Part of dealing with that reality is also dealing with real politics and a factual portrayal of world affairs. Argo begins with what could almost be described as an educational video, going over the backstory of the Iranian revolution, the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Obviously any story is going to be affected and interpreted differently based on personal and political bias, but that was something Affleck was very careful about while making this movie.
During the press conference a journalist asked a question regarding the portrayal of the Iranian population and politics during the late 1970s, particularly under Shah rule. In his response Affleck said he tried to show how women earned more rights when the Shah was in power (demonstrated by a photograph of female scientists working in a lab and women in non-traditional clothing outside of a nightclub), but balanced that with the understanding of how that caused tensions within the Shiite population of Iran.
Said Affleck, “While I didn’t want to be didactic, I didn’t want to indicate to the audience ‘This is how they should feel,’ nor do I think Chris or [producer George Clooney] or Grant or anyone, we did want to factually tell this story and talk about how we believe our support of the Shah was right, in part because of his progressive stance on a lot of these issues. And we look the other way in terms of the some of the political oppression, the absence of democracy, some of the literal atrocities that took place. That narrative very closely mirrors the narrative of other countries, primarily in the Middle East. It wasn’t really about placing a value judgment on what happened to women after the Islamic revolution.”
On the lighter side, though, because of the strange sci-fi movie script at the center of it all, the funny film industry types involved, and just the overall craziness of the situation, there’s no denying that the film is aided by a sense of “truth is stranger than fiction.” But that’s not something lost on Affleck. “It wouldn’t seem really interesting,” Affleck said when asked if people would believe the film’s plot was real if it weren’t based on a true story. “It’s like, ‘And then Hollywood came in! And then the NHL helped them get out!’”