Telluride Film Festival

09.03.12

Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ at the Telluride Film Festival

The ever-evolving actor-director’s riveting CIA thriller ‘Argo’ wowed the Telluride Film Festival. Marlow Stern speaks to Affleck about his most ambitious effort yet.

“This story is so crazy,” Ben Affleck tells The Daily Beast. “If it weren’t true, you just couldn’t make this movie, because it would be too ridiculous.”

Argo, the latest action-thriller from Affleck the director, is based on the 2007 Wired article “Escape From Tehran: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Iran.” The film chronicles the “Canadian Caper”—a joint covert mission executed by the CIA and the Canadian government to rescue six American diplomats who had evaded capture during the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran and subsequent hostage crisis.

With time running out, the CIA enlists Tony Mendez (Affleck), its exfiltration guru, to spearhead the “best bad idea” they have: convince the Iranian government that the six hostages are members of a film crew scouting locations in Tehran for a Flash Gordon-esque sci-fi movie called Argo. To create a convincing backstory, Mendez enlists the aid of Hollywood makeup expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and over-the-hill executive Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to shepherd the screenplay, create comic-strip storyboards, and even take out ads in the Hollywood trades announcing the project. Mendez, meanwhile, provided the cover story, documents—including Canadian passports and forged Iranian visas—and disguises for the hostages and led the mission. The truth about the operation didn’t emerge until 1997, when President Clinton declassified it.

The film received unanimous praise at the 39th annual Telluride Film Festival, where it had its world premiere, with many awards pundits considering it a lock for at least a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

“Chris Terrio wrote a really smart screenplay that gave me the chance to try to weave together three different themes and three different worlds: the CIA, Hollywood, and the Iran tensions,” says Affleck.

Indeed, Affleck’s film is a delicate balancing act. It opens with a prologue, replete with cartoon animations out of Persepolis spliced with documentary footage, of the steps that led to the exile of the Western-supported Shah in Iran, and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini and his fundamentalist Islamic regime in 1979. The hyperkinetic opening sequence depicts the seizure of the U.S. embassy by Iranian militants on Nov. 4, 1979, and the capture of 52 hostages. However, six U.S. officials manage to escape through a back door and find shelter in the Canadian embassy, where they’re safeguarded by Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

Over in Hollywood, Chambers and Siegel do their damnedest to make Argo seem like the real deal, and their fumbling efforts in trying to establish the schlocky sci-fi extravaganza provide much of the film’s comedic fodder. Arkin, in particular, is at his cynical, deadpan best—delivering one-liners faster than you can say “Argofuckyourself,” the operation’s unofficial motto (or their YOLO, as it were).

“Let’s put it this way: I felt like, once and for all, my vanity does not supersede everything else.”

The film’s other thread focuses on the political maneuvering at play in Washington, D.C., between the CIA’s mission commander, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), and the chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), who thinks Argo could be an international embarrassment for the U.S. 

While Gone Baby Gone and The Town were action thrillers through and through, Argo is Affleck’s most ambitious film to date and proof of his maturation as a filmmaker, deftly weaving together thriller, satire, and historical-drama elements.

“Tone is one of the hardest things to do for a director, and my first two films had a very consistent tone, so I thought I’d try to challenge myself,” says Affleck. “It scared the shit out of me going into it, because I had no idea if I would be able to execute it. The actors really sold it, because they always played it realistically, and so it never seemed like it was getting overly jokey or tense in spots.”

The performances are all solid but, like The Town before it, one can’t help but wonder if the film would have been a bit more effective with an actor other than Affleck in the lead. Nonetheless, the film is brilliantly shot by DP Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), couldn’t be timelier—given the treacherous state of U.S.-Iranian relations—and amps up the tension all the way to the nail-biting finale. Plus, the film boasts spot-on tacky ’70s stylings, including handlebar mustaches, polyester shirts, aviator shades, and Moneypenny blouses. Affleck, too, is nearly unrecognizable in a beard and shaggy haircut.

“Let’s put it this way: I felt like, once and for all, my vanity does not supersede everything else,” he says with a laugh. “I kind of sucked it up and went for the No Country haircut. Listen, it worked for Javier!”