Argo (2012): Affleck’s Real-Life Thriller?

Gregory Heslov and George Clooney learned about Ben Affleck’s interest shortly after seeing his 2010 drama “The Town.”

Says Heslov, “Ben has a wonderful sense of story and knows how to use the camera to tell it. He also has a strong point of view, which, as a filmmaker, is probably the most important thing. He understands how to build to a climax and brought even more of a thriller aspect to ‘Argo’ than we envisioned.”

One of the filmmakers’ biggest challenges was the film’s juxtaposition of life-or-death drama and dry comedy. Heslov explains, “It starts out very serious, and then the tone changes, particularly when you get to Hollywood. We wanted ‘Argo’ to have some levity, but it had to be integrated in a cohesive way. In the end, I feel we got the right balance, and that’s a testament to Ben as a director.”

“The humor was an important part of the script,” Affleck adds, “but it was the hardest line to walk. My main concern was making sure the laughs did not jeopardize the sense of urgency or realism. Luckily, we had Alan Arkin and John Goodman handling most of the comedy. They played every line with such integrity that the humor feels innate and never strains belief.”

Believability became the watchword of the entire production. However, Affleck underscores, “It is not intended to be a documentary. As is always the case with a movie like this, elements had to be compressed and some dramatic license was taken because it is, after all, a drama. But we were very fortunate in that we could stay faithful to the spirit of what happened, because the truth of what happened was incredibly compelling.”

Terrio cites the film’s closing minutes as an instance when the filmmakers used fictionalized events to depict genuine emotions. “When I talked to Tony and read the houseguests’ accounts of the actual escape, I got a sense of how overwhelming and euphoric that moment was. To cinematically replicate what they were feeling required more than just words. The action had to be wound up tight so that their relief is tangible, and is also shared by the audience.”

Affleck collaborated with his cast and creative teams to achieve a high level of verisimilitude, in both time and place. He and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto adopted distinct filming styles that would convey the era of the late 1970s and ’80, and establish a visual divide between the milieus of Washington, DC; Hollywood, CA; and Iran. Production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West examined photographs and film archives to re-create the look of the period as it pertained to the film’s decidedly different settings.

Affleck says, “In researching those three worlds, I started to plan how we were going to weave them together to tell this extraordinary story. That’s when the real work began.”

And, according to those who were actually there, the work paid off. Ken Taylor says, “The movie does a brilliant job of catching the mood and the tension in Tehran and the dedication of those in diplomatic life, often in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I also think the movie couldn’t be better in terms of timing. It takes place some 30-odd years ago, but it could well take place today.”

“I was pleased about the prospect of this experience being made into a movie, and now that it’s happened, it’s exciting,” Mendez states. “There was a point when it was important to keep the secret of what happened for the greater good, but it’s now a piece of history. Ben and everyone else involved in the film did a remarkable job. Watching ‘Argo’ brought me right back to that moment in time. Simply put, they got it right.”

The only character to inhabit all three worlds in “Argo” is Tony Mendez, the CIA’s best exfiltration officer—a specialist in getting people out of hostile spots. Terrio says, “Tony has to go into what is really the ‘belly of the beast’—the scariest place in the world if you’re an American—and get six people out. And the clock is ticking. He is also coming up against forces—whether bureaucratic or geopolitical—that are making the task even harder than it already is. At a certain point, you can’t imagine it will end well because there are too many things saying it won’t. The pressure on him couldn’t be higher, but the essence of Tony is that he’s just a guy doing his job.”

Affleck, who stars as Mendez, notes, “Tony steps up and does what he’s asked to do, completely in secret. No fanfare, no high-fives…just do the job and, if you succeed, go home and keep your mouth shut. He puts his life on the line to try and save these people and that’s heroic stuff. It’s impressive and also quite humbling.”

Heslov remarks that Affleck possesses many of the qualities they saw in the role. “Ben has a sort of quiet intensity about him that fit how we envisioned Tony. He is also a very smart guy, and you need this character to feel smart; it’s important that he appear in control of the situation and is capable of calling an audible if need be. And Ben is naturally funny, which was great in delivering that brand of dry humor, particularly when Tony heads to Hollywood.”