Affleck Defends Political Aims of ‘Argo’

Courtesy Warner Bros.

“Argo” follows the rescue of six US diplomats during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis.

“This would be the worst movie ever made if it wasn’t true,” says Ben Affleck of his new movie “Argo” that came out Friday. “It would seem completely absurd.” The film, which Affleck both stars in and directs, tells the remarkable tale of how a fake sci-fi film saved the lives of six Americans hiding in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. Argo appealed to Affleck’s interest in the Middle East, dating back to his one year as a Middle Eastern Studies major at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He liked that it was set in the 1970’s, his favorite film era, and, most importantly, it gave him the chance to prove he could successfully direct a film not set in his home town. “Everyone just thought of me as Boston guy. ‘Sure I guess he can do a movie in Boston, but if you take him to Providence he’s not going to know what he’s doing.’” So a lot was at stake. “I saw my future career kind of being dictated by it.”

In preparation for the film, Affleck spent a lot of time with Tony Mendez, the real CIA exfiltration expert behind the rescue mission. “You sit down and talk to someone who cavalierly talks about, ‘Well we went into South East Asia and we had to get this guy out,’ like during Vietnam and getting people out of Russia, and you just think, ‘How could you have this for a living, for a life? He’s got the intelligence star. He’s one of the 50 most important CIA guys of all time.’ You realize you’re sitting with the real deal, and there’s nothing that makes you feel inadequate like sitting with the real deal.”

But basing a movie off real events and the lives of living people presented some challenges. “If you change any little thing in it, you’re like, ‘Shit, I’m lying,’” says Affleck. Regarding one particular incident in the film which departs from reality, he explains, “It was sort of a way of externalizing their internal pressure, because [you’re] just shooting someone for a while, and you, like, imagine their panicking. At a certain point it doesn’t come across as much.”

Affleck also had to figure out how to navigate the still politically sensitive subject of Iranian relations. The day Argo premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, by sheer coincidence it seemed, Canada closed their embassy in Tehran. “You usually do a period movie, and it kind of fades away. People forget about the story—it happened a long time ago. This movie keeps getting more relevant.”

An introductory segment at the beginning of the film was added in an attempt to frame the political context and tone. “I’m not trying to editorialize, but it’s important to understand before we just jump into this movie and we’ve got guys jumping up and down breaking windows and yelling ‘Marg-bar Amreeka,’ which means death to America.... For better or for worse, here’s the truth.”

He also says he hopes people don’t misinterpret his political views after his visible presence at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. “You can write me off as a liberal or whatever, even though I hold more complicated positions than that, but I don’t want you to write the movie off.”

At the time of the Iran hostage crisis, Affleck was the same age as his fictional son in the film, but he doesn’t remember hearing about it. “You know what I do remember even earlier than that? I remember Kennedy’s primary challenge of Carter, because it was such a big deal, and all my friends at school were getting so whipped up about Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy.... In Boston I didn’t know anything about the hostages, I just knew about Ted Kennedy.”

Luckily, now that he’s got a non-Boston film under his belt, he can make another Boston-based movie—the infamous story of Whitey Bulger that will be written by Terence Winters, directed by Affleck, and starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. “It’s an amazing story, as you know. It’s really tough story because it’s so long.... I wanna go from Alcatraz—and they experimented on him with LSD—all the way to ending up in the farmer’s market in Santa Monica and he’s 83 years old. It’s tricky … to have it get that far and have it have resonance instead of just like, ‘Killed this person, pulled out their teeth, shot this guy, robbed this....’ So we’re working on it.”

—Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at rmazur@college.harvard.edu.

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