Not Just a Film: Ben Affleck on Terror, Iran and the Risk of Making 'Argo'
With a nation weary of war in the Middle East and fresh off new embassy attacks in the region, the actor-director is worried about the world -- and his audience.
Ben Affleck caught plenty of snarky blog grief for the feathered haircut and beard he sported during the months of production of his new late-'70s political-espionage thriller, Argo; add in heavy polyester suits, wide neckties and bell bottoms worn by all of the cast, and the film serves as a painful reminder of the era's bold fashion trends.
The sad irony is that, given current events, the detailed work of the wardrobe department has turned out to be one of the few ways to know that the film is a period piece and not a recent newsreel.
Argo, set amid the Iranian Revolution of 1979, dedicates an early chunk of time to the volatile rebellion protests in Tehran and the storming of the U.S. Embassy that launched the infamous 444-day hostage crisis. As Affleck told The Hollywood Reporter this week, re-creating the violent unrest provided a strange and ominous lesson in the cyclical nature of history.
"One of the terrible things about it to me," he said, "is that I thought there would be some resonance, in terms of the resolution in Iran, in terms of the Arab Spring or the Green Revolution." Affleck noted that instead of learning from the mistakes made by all sides during Iran's tumult, those recent triumphs of people power have, less than two years later, led in some cases to even more regional turmoil. He added, "Now what I’ve seen, if I look at the archival footage that I used for research, from 30 or whatever years ago, it looks just like some of the stuff we’re seeing on television now."
Just weeks ago, in fact, American embassies around the region came under protest, including one in Libya that dovetailed with a terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to that country. That, along with the fact that the movie deals with a perilous relationship with Iran, makes it even more pertinent and sad to the actor-director.
"It feels as though history has quite literally repeated itself in that sense, and it’s repeating itself with our relationship with the regime in Iran," Affleck explained. "And it’s the same regime, it was Khomeni, now it’s Khamenei -- there’s still this Islamist, this Stalinist regime, and that makes me sad. That makes me feel like, yeah we had this wonderful thing that happened in our movie, where America really did something right, but that we haven’t figured out how to navigate our relationship with countries in the Middle East."
There is little doubt in the movie who the audience is supposed to root for -- those American workers are innocent bureaucrats being hunted down by ruthless forces unafraid to murder for political theater -- but it also is careful to avoid the sort of detail whitewashing that pervades many works of historical cinema. Victors write the history books, and Americans, taking special pride in both the country's scrappy beginnings and mid-20th century superpower savior heroics, tend to calcify a more simplistic look at international conflict.
Even when hindsight shows that there are clear good guys and villains in a particular overarching narrative, smaller details tend to be ignored in service of strengthening the myth. It's generally a good move for a film to participate in such fine-point revision (or excerption), but Argo, in a slick storyboard sequence that introduces the film, is careful to note the history that helped lead to the Iranian Revolution, and particular grievance with the United States that led to the embassy takeover.
Given the United States' continued quarrels with Iran and domestic debate over how to deal with uprisings and new governments elsewhere in the region, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio opted to give a fuller picture.
"We felt like our responsibility at the beginning was to explain why all these people are at the gates of the embassy," Terrio told THR. "Because the image of the streets of the Middle East, of agitated people burning flags, it’s one that we’re kind of used to. So we thought instead of saying these people are crazy and they hate our freedom, we could say there are really specific reasons why they have grievances. And I think that propagates throughout the story. Once you understand the context, it becomes a lot easier to understand in a movie."
Iran democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh as its president in 1951, but just a year later the U.S. backed a coup that would install Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the country's Shah; while Mosaddegh nationalized Iran's oil fields, Pahlavi was much more friendly to the West when it came to distribution of his nation's wealth of black gold. But he also lived an extravagant life as Iran's economy stalled, was seen as corrupt and brutal and forced modernization that did not sit well with a pious populace. In early 1979, he would be overthrown; months later, he was granted entrance into the U.S. to seek medical care. That was seen as an affront to Iranian independence, prompting the violent demonstrations in front of the American embassy.
Ultimately, though, Argo uses the revolution as a backdrop for a smaller story; one of human ingenuity and bravery, political will and, yes, Hollywood's positive contribution to national affairs.
Affleck's film tells (and slightly dramatizes) the little-known tale of how the CIA worked with the Canadian government to spring free six American diplomatic workers who escaped the embassy before it was fully taken by the protesters; they hid out at the Canadian ambassador's home in Tehran for months, before Tony Mendez (Affleck's character) and two Hollywood vets (played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman) launch an audacious, movie-made plot to sneak them back home. It was, as Ted Koppel called it 33 years ago, a "silver lining" in a dark era in American history.
While shots of the protesters continue throughout the movie, it ultimately spends most of its time jumping from CIA headquarters to Hollywood to the interior of various homes in Tehran. Still, Affleck, who was in grade school during the hostage crisis and says he largely only remembers Sen. Ted Kennedy's primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter that took place amid the crisis -- "I'm from Boston, and Kennedy was like the pope there," he joked -- does worry that his film carries heavy baggage.
The uncertainty of the country's best course of action in the Middle East, as well as national fatigue with two decade-long wars in the region, might keep audiences away.
"My fear is getting it sold. Movies historically have not done well, that have said ‘Middle East conflict,'" the filmmaker noted. "That has been very off-putting, if you look at the history of films, and a lot of them are good. So the challenge for me has been to come out here and do more than I usually do, and a part of that is showing clips and saying, ‘Hey guys, once you get in this, it’s really funny, it’s really thrilling, it’s very watchable and entertaining,’ to people, for whom, from the outside, they may not be able to decipher what the tones are, or they may not be able to distinguish it from war movies in Iraq, which it assuredly is not."
Even so, a longtime political activist and now as someone steeped in the details of the region's perpetual chaos, Affleck is keeping a hopeful eye on its future -- even if, like everyone else, he's not quite sure how to best approach finding a solution.
"We don’t know whether to send troops to Syria, we don’t know how to relate to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, we’re not sure what our relationship should be in Libya -- obviously you saw four diplomats just gave their lives," he noted. "Those questions we’re still searching for answers for, and I really hope in 30 years someone’s not making a movie about what’s happening now, and we’re seeing the same exact issues at play."
Argo opens Oct. 12 in the U.S.