Argo: Interview with Ben Affleck

In 1980, Studio Six Productions announced a new film project that had the elements of a hit sci-fi movie: spaceships, aliens, action and adventure, all happening on an arid, distant planet. Billed as a “cosmic conflagration,” the epic feature was never greenlit by any studio chief.

It could only be given a green light by the country’s Commander in Chief.

Many years later, Ben Affleck directed, produced and stars in “Argo,” a film based on the true story of the covert mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran, following the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that shocked the world.

The group had narrowly avoided being taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries and were given sanctuary at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who risked everything to help the Americans, even when others turned them away. But the “houseguests”—as they came to be known—were in constant jeopardy of being found out and captured…or worse. With time running out, the CIA’s top exfiltration expert, Antonio “Tony” Mendez, devised a brilliant but outrageous escape plan.

Affleck explains, “Tony was friends with a famous makeup artist named John Chambers and knew it was a viable prospect for movie people to be traveling around, checking out different locations. He came up with an idea no one else would ever have thought of.”

The plan was for the six to pose as a Canadian filmmaking team on a location scout and then simply fly out…although it was anything but simple. Tony Mendez emphasizes, “This was a game with no rules, so it was extremely risky. The most dangerous thing about it was the capriciousness of the people we were trying to get around. We had no way of predicting what would happen if we got caught—to us or to those already held hostage.”

Joshuah Bearman, who, in 2007, chronicled the escape in a Wired Magazine article, relates, “The embassy seizure was a seismic event on the world stage. No one knew quite how to respond to the hostage situation in the embassy compound. The problem of the hidden houseguests was even trickier because diplomacy wasn’t an option. And with each day, the likelihood that they would be discovered grew. Eventually, Tony Mendez, who had ‘exfiltrated’ sensitive people from Iran and elsewhere before, stepped in with this plan.”

There was also a very real threat to those harboring the Americans. Ambassador Ken Taylor confirms, “During those three months, the staff at the Canadian Embassy was dealing with the dangerous reality of the situation. We had all been offended by the violent breach of diplomatic protocol, but apart from that, these were our friends. The U.S. and Canada have always had a special relationship that transcends any boundaries. I have been given a lot of the credit, but an equal amount belongs to my wife, Pat, and my embassy staff, as well as my colleagues in Canada.”

Holding an emergency session, the Canadian Parliament made a rare exception to their own laws to provide the six Americans with fake Canadian passports, under the “film crew’s” individual aliases. They arrived by diplomatic pouch to Ambassador Taylor, who rendezvoused with Mendez to deliver them. Applying his expert counterfeiting skills, Mendez imprinted them with the correct Iranian visas and entered dates to indicate that the six had arrived in the country only the day before.

“To me,” says Affleck, “one of the most important themes of the movie is remembering when the United States stood up as a nation to say ‘Thank you, Canada.’ None of this would have happened without them, so America will always have a debt of gratitude to our friends to the north.”

In today’s instant information age, it seems inconceivable that the entire operation remained top secret until it was declassified by President Clinton in 1997. Surprisingly, even after Tony Mendez recounted the events in his 2000 book, Master of Disguise, and, later, Bearman detailed them in Wired, most people remain largely unaware of a story that even Affleck admits “sounds utterly absurd. I understand that, because it seems completely unbelievable, but the fact that it happened is what makes it even more fascinating.”

“This operation was a little-known success story in an otherwise difficult chapter in history,” says Bearman. “People knew at the time that six Americans escaped with the help of the Canadians a few months into the crisis, but until the operation was declassified years later, no one realized that the CIA had actually led the Americans to safety with such a daring mission and wild cover story.”

Bearman’s piece first came to the attention of producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney. Heslov offers, “I remember the hostage crisis well, but I was unaware of this story, so I found it astonishing and also very cool. I knew immediately there was a film there and that it was one I wanted to make, and George felt the same way.”

Screenwriter Chris Terrio was entrusted with turning this rescue operation into a script and went right to the source. He reveals, “When I read the article, I was riveted, and I was especially curious about Tony Mendez, about what kind of guy could think outside the box enough to come up with this plan and then undertake it. If I had pitched this as an original concept, brows would furrow and people would say, ‘No audience will ever believe that.’ But Tony managed to convince the United States government to attempt something that was even crazier than what most Hollywood studios would dream up.”

Mendez counters, “I don’t think it’s so unusual to associate Hollywood and the CIA, because an instrument of espionage is naturally stagecraft.”

“That makes sense,” Heslov nods. “In both worlds, you’re forging fictional situations and playing dress-up to create convincing scenarios, so there is an overlap.”

Terrio arranged to meet with Mendez, who retired from the CIA in 1990. The screenwriter observes, “The structure of the film is a rescue, with people’s lives hanging in the balance. The stakes couldn’t be higher. But in my communication with Tony, I wanted to know about his day-to-day life, because if you understand the nuts and bolts of what the life of a CIA officer was like at this time, there’s a more complex drama there, which takes you beyond the action and suspense. Whenever I started to get lost in the scale of the story—how these men and women were swept up by historical events—I would remember that, underneath, it’s just a human story about people trying to do the best they can against overwhelming odds.”

“You know you’ve hired the right writer when he connects so strongly to the material,” Heslov says. “Inherently, it’s a terrific tale and that’s half the battle, but Chris wrote an amazing script. It was all there on the page from the very first draft.”

Affleck agrees. “It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I’m always on the lookout for a great story, and I know when I find one. That was certainly the case with ‘Argo.’ It was a true page-turner, so I was happy to get a crack at directing it.”

 

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