If there were ever any reason to be nervous about Ben Affleck directing a film not set in Boston, all of those feelings vanished upon leaving the theatre after Argo, his latest film about the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979.
The film is based on the declassified true story of CIA Exfiltration Specialist Tony Mendez, who was assigned to travel undercover to Iran disguised as a film producer scouting locations for a Canadian film.
MUSE sat down with Affleck to discuss his feelings on tackling a true story, and a true story not about Boston to boot.
“The really hard part is that it’s a true story,” Affleck said. “It’s got all these real people in it, and it’s their true lives, and if you change any little thing in it, now you’re like, ‘s—t, I’m lying.’”
Affleck said he kept Mendez, as well as the hostages, around to consult on the film and to make sure that every aspect came off as authentic and accurate to the original story.
“On this one [Argo], I felt a responsibility to stay really close to the truth because it’s not just some Civil War battle where you’ve got two soldiers in a ditch … it’s something that’s actually affecting people’s lives,” he said.
The film, of course, still has relevance today because it deals with U.S.-Iranian relations. In fact, the day it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Canada (the embassy that hid the American hostages in Tehran in 1979) announced that they had closed the embassy and cut diplomatic ties with the nation of Iran.
Despite its somewhat controversial political implications, Affleck insisted that he was not trying to send a political message through Argo.
“I’m not trying to brainwash anybody. I’m not trying to do anything political, I’m not trying to editorialize,” he said. “But it’s important to understand that before we jump into this movie where there are guys jumping up and down and breaking windows yelling ‘Death to America’ in Farsi.”
He joked that this was a film that he would absolutely bring John McCain’s wife to, as well as his hometown die-hard liberal Bostonians.
“I wanted to tell that narrative without wagging a finger at anyone or anything like that but also just say, ‘Look this part [of the story] is just part of this experience, and you can draw your own conclusions from what happens after that.’”
In that sense, the film does an excellent job of balancing the political tension of the situation and capturing the humorous seedy vibe of 1970s Hollywood. Argo will put one through the emotional wringer, juxtaposing hilarious one-liners from Alan Arkin with nail-biting moments of the disguised hostages wandering through the bazaar in downtown Tehran.
With any other director, the two tones in the scope of the film might have felt too disconnected, but Affleck and his crew’s finesse in shooting and editing really shined from shot to shot. The visual detail was exquisitely down to the last funny haircut and pack of cigarettes, which lent itself to the authentic feel that Affleck was going for.
“I wanted it to be All The President’s Men, you know?” Affleck said when discussing the movie’s visual style. “Like dirty. Papers everywhere, smokin’ cigarettes, just kind of a f—kin’ mess, and everyone was really into that — like, how messy can we make it?”
Maybe the visual effects were carefully constructed to look “messy,” but the film as a whole is tight and nearly flawless in almost every aspect — plot, effects, cast and historical accuracy.
When asked how he felt about his finished product of his first film not set in Boston, Affleck said, “I’m glad I made this movie because now that I have, I can say, ‘Okay, let me go make a Boston movie now.’”
In the works now for Affleck is a film about Boston mobster Whitey Bulger with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck tentatively penciled in to star. The real question is whether or not Affleck will be able to top the phenomenal filmmaking of Argo upon his return to the Boston scene.