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Ben Affleck's new film, Argo, jolts us back to 1979.
Iran is in revolution and protesters storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The American hostage crisis begins as all the U.S. diplomats inside the embassy are captured and blindfolded — except for six, who escape to the Canadian ambassador's residence and hide there.
But how long can they be safe?
The film is based on the CIA's true story of an agent named Tony Mendez, who concocts a cover story to get them out. His story is that the six were Canadians on a movie crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo, which they wanted to shoot in Iran.
Affleck directs the film and plays Mendez, the real-life CIA agent who has to drill the six Americans on how to sound both like believable Canadians and true film people. The film also stars John Goodman as a makeup artist who goes back and forth between film sets and spy work, and Alan Arkin as a Hollywood producer who makes himself useful.
Affleck spoke with Scott Simon about the film.
On what drew him to the story, which was declassified 15 years ago
"It's sort of too incredible to be believed, you know. You have this thriller, you have a comedy, you have a story about how the CIA used a cover of, you know, basically being a movie crew to get these hostages out of Iran. It would be a terrible movie if it weren't true."
On balancing comedy with the drama in a film based on true events
"When I approached the movie I thought, 'I won't do anything, comically, that upends the sort of seriousness of the rest of the movie, that chews away at the fabric of that reality.' Because if you kind of feel like, oh, we're winking at the audience and we're kind of mugging, you won't be concerned about these people's safety when we cut back to Tehran. I was ready to do all kind of directorial surgery — as it turned out, I really just needed John Goodman and Alan Arkin because they were so good at playing real, even when it was comic."
On the Hollywood characters in the film
"There's all these people in the movie business that no one has any idea about, that no one ever pays attention to, who are very much the lunch-pail guys, who are rolling their eyes at their bosses. And I thought that was a nice parallel to draw with Tony and the CIA as we were presenting it, which wasn't the supersexy Bourne Identity thing, it was just like, dirty ashtrays and papers all over the place. And that fits my sensibility and the things I'm interested in."
On what it takes to be a good director
"I wish I knew. I think for me it takes just hard work. I wouldn't have been able to be a director at a really young, at a younger point in my life because I didn't know how to work this hard. And it eats up the rest of your life, but I truly feel that that's what's necessary, for me anyway, and I marvel at guys who can do it more deftly and who can work eight hours a day. And also it just, it comes down, I guess, to taste. I learned to be really, really, really critical and that's served me well.
"Frankly, I had something to prove when I got older. Down the road in my life. So I had something fueling that desire to work twice as hard, and I also had a little bit more maturity and perspective on it."
On what it was like to film the storming of a U.S. Embassy on location in Turkey
"We had this huge digital embassy, and we shot the stuff inside the embassy at the North Hills, Calif., abandoned VA facility. But one of the things about the extras I found was — this was a student revolution so we kept saying, 'We gotta have students. We need students. We need students.' Well, of course students are in school all day. The only people who really aren't are retirees who are available. So we had a bit of a senior citizen embassy takeover.
"At first I was agonizing. I was like, 'Are you kidding me? These guys are all mandatory retirement.' And then they were great. They came out, like I don't know if they remembered the period or if they, whatever it was, or if they were just inspired. But it was awesome. So if you know that it's a student thing and you look closely, you'll know that folks are a bit old. But it was really cool and fun that they threw themselves into it."
On the kinds of films he's been offered since his directorial debut
"My movies still exist within a sort of a limited range. ... I kind of exist in a certain — a certain zone. And that's fine. I don't have any great ambitions to do $300 million movies.
"What I've found — because I got a kind of second go on a career in Hollywood by directing — I got to apply some of the lessons I learned from this business that I learned from my acting career. And one of which, perhaps the most important, was that you have to sort of forget about all the other criteria when it comes to the movies you're gonna do, except whether or not you think it can be a good movie."