When Ben Affleck was filming Argo, the story of six Americans hiding out in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, he had no idea he was also virtually making a movie about current events.
“I was stunned to see that the research that I looked at from 30-plus years ago all of a sudden was looking exactly like what was on the evening news,” Affleck said during a recent interview at the Georgetown Four Seasons, referring to last month’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.
“I expected the movie to be relevant in the sense of we were looking at what happens when the United States gets involved with the government of another country and overlooks some of the negative things because they’re pro-Western; that was similar in some ways to, for example, [ousted Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak,” he continued. “The unintended consequences of revolution, the Arab Spring — those were the kinds of things I was anticipating. What it ended up being more about in some ways was an homage to our foreign service folks who, as illustrated by these tragic events, sacrifice a lot, give up a lot, to go overseas.”
Argo, Affleck’s third and most Oscar-buzzed film, begins with what the actor-director calls a brief “history lesson” but otherwise jumps directly into action: Protesters are outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, calling for the blood of the overturned Shah but settling for captive Americans instead. There were 52 hostages total, but the film focuses on six diplomats who escaped to the Canadian Embassy, hiding out there until the C.I.A. hatched a stranger-than-fiction plan to rescue them by giving them Canadian passports and having them pose as a film crew scouting locations for a fake Hollywood movie named Argo.
Affleck’s taken a little heat for not delving more deeply into the nuances of the revolution, but he defends his storytelling choices. “I didn’t have to show specifically how bad the revolutionaries became because you see them hanging people from construction cranes,” he says. “You see firing squads. Impromptu kangaroo courts. You see a place that’s living in fear under the revolutionary guard. So in that sense you see what has happened to this country once the Islamic revolution took hold. It’s an extraordinarily complicated scenario…We tried to capture the essence of the truth.”
Of course, some fictionalization is inevitable. “You have to maintain the integrity and the honesty of the story,” Affleck says. “That’s one profound responsibility, because if [hostage] Rodney Sickmann comes and sees that takeover, I want him to look at it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s basically it.’ Now, the real thing was four hours long, and we had five minutes. It was raining in the real takeover, it’s not raining [in the film]. But the essentials have to be preserved. Somebody really did find a picture of [Ayatollah] Khomeini with the darts in it, things like that.
“I also have a responsibility to make a good movie, to tell a good story,” Affleck continues. “And so those two things are constantly in tension with one another because I wanna make it true, but I gotta make it good.”
Affleck, now 40, also plays the C.I.A. operative who helps rescue the Americans and delved into all things ‘70s to amp up the verite. “I was the age of the [C.I.A. operative’s] kid in the movie, so I identified with the child as much as the father…and when I went into that room with all the action figures and the Star Wars stuff, it really hit me: This is my childhood,” he says. “And I got really fastidious about the sheets and everything!”
He also turned to throwback filmmaking techniques, such as shooting crowd scenes with 16 mm cameras and other parts with a Super 8, so the shots could be blown up to maximum graininess. Affleck even took pains—-here’s that fastidiousness again—-to introduce the film with the old Warner Bros. logo.
“Yeah, I thought it’d be kind of a trick of the brain, where if you’re looking at a movie that looks like it was made in the 1970s, it’s easier for the brain to subconsciously accept that the events [you’re] watching are taking place during that period,” Affleck says. “Even better, that era was a really great era for filmmaking. So I got to copy great films and great filmmakers, like Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, and so on.” Commenting on his character’s tres ’70s shaggy look, he even admits: “And I liked The Thing, for my hair.”
Argo is Affleck’s first feature set outside of his comfort zone of his hometown Boston, not to mention one in which the action and the cast are significantly more ambitious than in his previous directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, including a tense scene in which police cars chase an airplane.
“The car stuff wasn’t bad,” he said. “I was kind of excited, there’s a car, a Porsche Cayenne, that’s got a huge crane on the back that’s called a Russian arm. They do incredible things. You can be driving, like, 100 miles an hour next to something else that’s [going] 100 miles an hour, and move the crane around. I’d wanted one for The Town and couldn’t afford it. So [this time I said], ‘We’re going to need the Russian arm!’ And we got it, and I got to play with it, and that was a lot of fun.”
But crowd scenes, such as the opening riot and a sequence inside a Turkish bazaar? “[Managing] 2,000 extras in Turkey was really hard,” Affleck says. “It was cold, people wanted to go home. The idea was, every hour, we’re going to give away sweet rolls!”
Maybe he should consider a better incentive next time. “There were a lot of people who thought the sweet roll wasn’t worth hanging around for.”