Since Ben Affleck and Matt Damon first caught our attention with their Oscar-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting, it has been fascinating to follow the career trajectories of both men. Tall, dark and handsome, Affleck may have initially seemed comfortable working with his indie filmmaker friend Kevin Smith in Chasing Amy, though he quickly entered leading man territory in Armageddon and Shakespeare in Love. Despite early roles in Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr. Ripley and indeed Good Will Hunting, Damon waited far longer for the phone to ring and when it did he became hot property for different kinds of movies and generally was far more discerning.
It’s about the unintended consequences of revolution
Even if Damon took little of the credit for his efforts in honing the screenplay for The Bourne Identity (at the last minute), he helped that movie become a huge success, while Affleck was falling flat as Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. Things would only get worse as Affleck became tabloid fodder for his relationship with his Gigli co-star Jennifer Lopez. At least he met his future wife Jennifer Garner on the much derided Daredevil and his career truly looked like it would never recover after his awkward turn in a superman outfit playing George Reeves in Hollywoodland. Thankfully nobody saw it. (Strangely the film won him the best actor Silver Lion in Venice.)
Around that time Damon, then at the height of his success, warned never to write off his friend as Affleck was in the throes of directing his first feature, the child abduction drama Gone Baby Gone, and it was very, very good. Affleck had already directed the 1993 16-minute cheesy short, I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney, and perhaps he realised he should let Kevin Smith do the subversive comedy and knew where his own talents lay. In his subsequent features, the gritty bank heist thriller, The Town, and the semi-comic espionage thriller, Argo, Affleck has established himself as a respected directing talent and has also cast himself in roles that imminently suit his slightly wooden acting style.
Affleck has in fact come full circle in his career, as he is again a major Oscar contender for Argo, a movie in which he also stars. Even if initially, a film about the little-known real-life story of CIA operative Tony Mendez helping six American State Department employees escape from Tehran in 1980 during the year-long hostage crisis, seemed an unlikely fit.
“Oh no,” Affleck counters. “My major in college was Middle Eastern studies and I've always been interested in it and I've always followed it, so when this came along I had a huge passion to make the film. The story is really in my zone of interest. At college I actually wrote a couple of papers on the Iranian Revolution and I'm sure they were terrible–I didn't actually graduate. But how often do you get a movie on this subject, particularly after many of the war movies that had been made [about the region] over the past decade have been a little too depressing for audiences? The truth is that Warner Brothers took a chance on me to make an unconventional movie with a lot of unusual elements.”
Chris Terrio's smart and funny screenplay is based on Joshuah Bearman's 2007 Wired article, 'How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran', which immediately attracted the attention of George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who would ultimately produce the film together with Affleck. Terrio also met with Mendez and drew on a chapter from the spy's memoir concerning the little-known mission that was finally declassified by the Clinton administration in 1997.
Mendez, who had been friends with John Chambers, a real life Hollywood effects man who worked on Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, had the brainwave of enlisting his friend to set up a faux science fiction film in order to get the six Americans out of the country. Only they would be turned into Canadians and would hide in the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber in the movie) until the plan could go ahead. Back in Hollywood, Chambers (John Goodman, who never met the real-life Chambers and says he didn't need to) enlisted the help of film producers (Alan Arkin is an amalgam of several people) and together they settled on a movie called Argo, based on a screenplay that has been relegated to a Writer's Guild slush pile.
Ultimately Affleck's film, which was mostly shot in Los Angeles and Istanbul, is a hybrid of historical drama, spy tale, political thriller and Hollywood spoof.
“The aim was to take the Hollywood satire aspect of the movie and keep it realistic while making it entertaining,” Affleck explains. “That was incredibly challenging but necessary in order to stitch the movie together, so it didn't feel like a series of short films: one about the CIA, one a comedy about Hollywood and one a Costa Gavras movie. In that sense I relied totally on the actors and I got a great script that I knew they would respond to because it's very smart.”
As in all fact-based dramas, the action was condensed so that we only see the six Americans cooped up as the Canadian Ambassador's houseguests, when they had actually moved around quite a bit beforehand.
[ Watch: The real 'Argo' embassy workers speak out ]
Terrio: “You kind of internalise what you think the truth of the situation is and there was clear and present danger in the room. But to make the tension tangible you need real stones to throw at them, real aspects that aren't on the record, so you can at least partially fictionalise real events to achieve that.”
At the film's end we are in fact on the edge of our seats as Affleck ratchets up the action to deliver a nail-biting climax as Mendez (played by Affleck himself) and the six Americans attempt to board the plane with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in hot pursuit.
“In reality, the flight was delayed and there was a huge anxiety,” notes Affleck, “but it was internal anxiety. So how do you make that legitimate anxiety to be literal?”
While Argo is ultimately a piece of entertainment and Affleck is consumed with the marketing challenge of bringing his film to the masses, he also likes that it focuses on an incident that shows how countries can work together. It certainly was a significant moment in US-Canadian relations.
“Iran has always been angry with Canada about it; it was the U.S. that dodged the bullet,” he notes.
He also points out that the story remains relevant. “It's about the unintended consequences of revolution, and given recent events with the Arab Spring, we're dealing with the same issues now that we were 30 years ago.”