Movies that begin with the words "based on a true story" do so for a variety of reasons -- but not always because the story is simply too fantastic for the movies. "You wouldn't believe it if it wasn't true," Ben Affleck said of his new film, "Argo," which opens Friday. "It would just seem like bad storytelling."
And yet "Argo" -- which the star-director described as "a nail-biting thriller, a comedy, a CIA spy movie and a hostage drama" -- is true, the tale of an incredible conspiracy hatched between the CIA and Hollywood to free six Americans, who escaped the 1979 Iran hostage-taking by hiding in the Tehran home of the Canadian ambassador.
By creating a phony movie production, a CIA agent named Tony Mendez was able to get into the Iranian capital, masquerade the six as his crew and whisk them out of the country. "The notion that the CIA decided to pose as the producers of a B science-fiction movie is simply fantastic," Affleck admitted.
Keeping it real
Still, it happened. The story only came to public light last year when Wired magazine writer Joshuah Bearman, working with recently declassified CIA documents, wrote his article, "The Great Escape," which, along with Mendez's memoir "The Master of Disguise," provided the basis for the film's screenplay by Chris Terrio. Despite all the facts at hand, Affleck took great pains to create a sense of period and credibility, from the vintage WB logo that opens the film (and was dug out of the literal salt mines of Warner Bros.' film storage) to the concluding postscripts, which explain where the characters ended up. "I needed to impress on the audience that what they just saw actually took place," he said.
Affleck plays Mendez who (in somewhat predictable Hollywood fashion) is going through some domestic problems at home, while also trying to free six hostages abroad, and not get himself killed in the process. Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") is Mendez's by-the-book supervisor Jack O'Donnell, and Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the Hollywood producers abetting the counterfeit "Argo," a script that no one wants to actually produce, but which provides a plausible enough argument -- given its sci-fi-fantasy-space drama desert locations -- that it needs to be shot in a Mideast country like Iran.
"I was very proud to be
able to be the one to say 'This is the best bad idea we have,'" Cranston laughed. "And it was true: The odds were way against their having any success and yet they were doing the right thing, expecting no acknowledgment, and going after the honorable goal. And there's nothing more honorable than trying to save human life."
While the 52 "official" hostages seized were being used as bargaining chips against the U.S. government of Jimmy Carter, the six who escaped would likely have been considered spies and executed. So there's no question that Mendez is operating against a hostile, dangerous enemy. At the same time, "Argo" lays U.S. culpability on the line. As explained in the introduction, America had deposed a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953, installed the despised shah and was thus responsible for nearly three decades of authoritarian dictatorship, and the subsequent rise of Ayatollah Khomeini.
"I think the response so far is that the movie treats the story very fairly," said Arkin. "And the blame for a lot of what took place is very squarely placed on the United States."
Affleck said the "Argo" story questions the historical policy of propping up oppressive, U.S.-friendly regimes. At the same time, he said, "I don't want this movie to be politicized domestically -- of course, with the election coming, everything is politicized -- and I don't want anyone international waving it around as if it confirms any one point of view. But I wanted to tell a story accurately and in a way that people of every political stripe could relate to and enjoy. And if you get the politics out of the way, you get a bit more out of it and the ideas land more powerfully."
Don't be afraid to laugh
For all the politics and intrigue, "Argo" is also a big old movie -- one that got tremendous reception at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, and not just because some of the heroics were Canadian. There's no shortage of humor, much of it supplied by Arkin, as crusty schlock producer Lester Siegel, who gets to tell Mendez: "You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot and not do anything? You'll fit right in."
"I based him a little bit on Jack Warner," Arkin said, referring to the late studio mogul. "I only knew him a little bit in the '60s, but he was such a vivid personality that the little time I spent with him has stayed with me."
For all "Argo's" nostalgia, he added, recent events put a weird spin on the making of the film. "It was very bizarre and strange that things in the world started happening just as we started this movie," he said. "It was all coming up again after 40 years. It's hair-raising. And saddening."
Cranston agreed. "On the night we premiered in Toronto, the Canadian government closed its embassy in Tehran," he recalled. "There are a lot of issues that haven't been resolved and are extremely difficult and need a great deal of diplomacy. And patience. And clear thought."
And maybe a little faith. The actor said that while his portrayal of the CIA operative was based on "research, reading and personal interviews at Langley," he added his own back story to Jack O'Donnell, which involved his handling rosary beads during the movie's several moments of extreme tension. "I've seen the film twice and haven't noticed if you can see them," he said of the rosary. "I'll have to look again next time I see it."