“Argo” is set in the 1970s and certainly looks and sounds like the decade. Its star—and director—Ben Affleck sports a shaggy hairdo and wears a gold necklace. His character tools around Hollywood to the sound of Van Halen and Dire Straits. But parts of the movie look eerily similar to scenes that have been shown on television in just the last few weeks.
Affleck’s third film as director, “Argo” takes place during the Iranian Hostage Crisis that began in 1979. It’s based on the real-life story of six Americans who managed to escape the embassy before the rest of the staff were taken by revolutionaries. While they hid out at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran, CIA official Tony Mendez came up with a plan to rescue them, a plan so outlandish even Hollywood couldn’t have come up with it: He pretended the group was a Canadian filmmaking crew scouting a location for an exotic science-fiction movie. Even more outlandish is the fact it worked.
Early in the film, we see the students who first protested at the embassy before storming its walls, chanting anti-American slogans. It doesn’t seem so much has changed in the intervening decades.
“I thought it would be totally irrelevant. I wish this movie was much more irrelevant,” Affleck told reporters in Los Angeles. Wearing a blue plaid collared shirt, he might pass for any other Bostonian. In Washington, D.C., just over a week later, talking to a smaller group of reporters, he might have been wearing that same plaid shirt—but this time, it was mostly covered with a sweater and a blazer.
In D.C., he elaborated on what it was like to see his period piece come to life. “I was kind of stunned, naturally, to see that the material I looked at for research from 30-plus years ago all of a sudden looked exactly like what was on TV,” he said. “I expected the movie to be resonant,” he added, but didn’t expect quite that kind of parallel.
Mendez, whom Affleck plays, has a young son in the film. “I’m the age of the kid in the movie, so I definitely identified with the child,” Affleck said, “and with the father.”
In Los Angeles, Grant Heslov, who with George Clooney helped produce the film, said he was immediately drawn to the story as well. “I don’t know how many of you get to read screenplays. Generally, they suck,” he declared. “Argo” didn’t.
“Argo” is something of a political thriller and something of an action flick. But screenwriter Chris Terrio emphasized that it’s ultimately about something the CIA and Hollywood share in common. “There’s a lot of words in it. It’s about artifice. It’s about pulling off an escapade without any military action, and without anything except storytelling and bullshitting,” he said. “I knew that it was going to be about people trying to do their jobs and trying to get these people out by storytelling, really.”
Alan Arkin, who plays a composite character based on the Hollywood insiders who helped Mendez and the CIA make their fake movie project look real, added gravitas to the proceedings. But the veteran said the 40-year-old Affleck is as talented as filmmakers many years his senior.
“He’s as meticulous as any director I’ve ever worked with.” Arkin then looked over at Affleck and said. “Hold your ears.” To the reporters, he said, “He’s darling.
Affleck apparently hadn’t listened to his actor’s instruction. He leaned over and gave the usually deadpan Arkin a hug, and even a kiss.