Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo." (Claire Folger, Warner Bros. )
Hollywood is blamed for countless societal ills and rarely receives credit for doing anything good. In Ben Affleck's "Argo," however, show business plays a starring role in a real-life Middle Eastern rescue mission that was more inventive than most movies.
While "Argo," opening Oct. 12, makes several factual departures in its third act, the story hews closely to historical reality. Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who led a covert operation to liberate six State Department employees who managed to escape the 1979 siege of the American Embassy in Iran by militant students who held hostages there for 444 days. The six employees found refuge with Canada's ambassador, whose residence was near the embassy.
To extract the six from Tehran some three months after the hostage crisis started, Mendez, with some Hollywood help, concocted a wild cover story ("The best of our bad ideas," as co-star Bryan Cranston calls the daring idea in the film). What if the trapped Americans pretended to be a movie scouting team, Mendez suggested, looking for an exotic desert location to film a sham science-fiction flick?
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Embroidering the idea, Mendez enlisted Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in the ruse, took out ads in industry trade newspapers announcing the film's imminent launch and set up a staged reading of the screenplay.
In Mendez's mind, the details were critical if the six refugees were to succeed in posing as the fake film's Canadian crew. The hope was that with all of the show business embellishments, they could walk right past Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
"Argo" represents a filmmaking promotion for the 40-year-old Affleck, who previously directed the kidnapping drama "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007 and the bank robber story "The Town" in 2010. Unlike those films, which clearly fit within a definable niche, "Argo" is alternately movie industry send-up, spy thriller, government bureaucracy critique, historical drama and hero journey.
Distributor Warner Bros. is confident the film is an Academy Award contender and has organized an "Argo" best picture campaign, kicking off with an "Argo" premiere this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival.
"I just fell in love with it," Affleck, who was a Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College before dropping out to become an actor, said of his first encounter with Chris Terrio's screenplay. "It was clearly written by somebody who had similar taste to mine, which errs on the side away from telling the audience what to think and allows it to make its own determinations and insights."
What's more, the script (and resulting movie) had no political ax to grind. "I didn't want to start with just a bunch of brown-skinned barbarians you think of as crazy, anti-American violent people," said Affleck, who primarily filmed in Turkey and Los Angeles. "It's a movie that I would really be happy to show to my friends who are Republicans and my friends who are Democrats."
After a brief primer on Iran's political history and its anger over the United States' safeguarding of the Shah, "Argo" launches with Iranian militants storming the embassy. Because almost any Westerner in Tehran at the time would raise suspicion, particularly one trying to fly out of the country, Mendez proposes the "Argo" scheme.
In adapting Mendez's memoir "The Master of Disguise" and a Wired magazine article about the mission, Terrio labored to balance inside-the-industry jokes — "You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA," Arkin's character says about getting proper script clearances from the Writers Guild of America — with the real-life possibility that at any moment the six embassy escapees could be captured and executed.
"You don't want it to be a smug movie," said Terrio, who also adapted the French thriller "Tell No One" as a possible future directing gig for Affleck. He said his minor epiphany was in realizing that spies, very much like more than a few Hollywood executives, are hustlers: The rescue mission, put another way, was just a more complicated show business con.
As he did in "The Town," Affleck gave himself a starring part in "Argo," donning a 1970s shag and Barry Gibb beard as Mendez. The real CIA agent, who looks more like a New York City cop than Affleck, said the actor got his approach to the job right. "We are not all crazed assassins," Mendez said, "which is the way movies like to portray us." Mendez, long retired from the CIA and planning a new book about the "Argo" mission, acted as a consultant on the film set.
The final judgment will be left to critics and awards voters, but "Argo" plays like Affleck's most assured movie, and he says that he's become a better performer by directing others. Having been busted by "The Town's" Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively, Affleck said he's ceased one of his more annoying directing habits — mouthing other actors' lines while watching them recite the dialogue.
"If anybody really wants to be an actor, a great advanced acting class would be to direct some stuff," Affleck said. "Because you get perspective."
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