BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Ben Affleck met former CIA agent Tony Mendez at a Georgetown bar in Washington, D.C., a place where convicted spy Aldrich Ames used to rendezvous with his Soviet handlers and exchange secrets for cash.
Affleck was not looking for secrets: The story of Mendez' successful plan to spirit six U.S. embassy workers out of Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis was declassified 15 years ago. Instead, he was looking for verification, firsthand proof that the story he wanted to tell in his third directorial effort, “Argo,” was as true as its reputation.
“This was a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake,” Affleck said during a news conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “It wasn't just sliding down the roof and kicking in the window and shooting three guys, which is the kind of thing that we, in Hollywood, tend to think of as the CIA. It was a real thing, and it's out there.”
“Argo” has the gravity of history backing it up. In November 1979, when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 workers hostage, six U.S. civil servants managed to slip out of the compound and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. The C.I.A. floated several internal options for rescuing the workers, but most normal courses of action, including diplomatic channels, would not work in the radicalized environment of post-Shah Tehran.
Mendez, who joined the agency during the Vietnam War, was the former head of the C.I.A.'s disguise division and was then in charge of creating authentic cover documents for false identities.
After several plans were ruled out, Mendez concocted an elaborate strategy: He would create a back story in which the six Americans were, in fact, a Canadian film crew scouting for Middle Eastern locations for a science fiction movie. He contacted a John Chambers, a makeup effects artist whose credits included “Star Trek” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” to help create a fake production company around an unproduced actual script called “Argo.”
What followed was a race against time as Mendez worked with Chambers to create a verifiable but fake movie project, then flew to Tehran, where he coached the six embassy workers, provided them with fake Canadian passports and attempted to get them onto a plane before any of the Iranian militants could discover the plan.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio began adapting the story from two sources: Mendez' “Master of Disguise: My Life in the C.I.A.” and an extensive 2007 Wired magazine article by Josh Bearman, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran.”
“When I got the script, I couldn't believe how good it was,” Affleck said of his script meetings before working with executive producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney. “They said, ‘This is our best script,' and I thought that was some executive hyping me on it, but it really was pretty incredible. I was amazed.”
As “Argo” took shape and Heslov, Clooney and Affleck began assembling a cast including John Goodman as Chambers, Alan Arkin as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel and Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” as Mendez' C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O'Donnell, Affleck said he knew that he wanted to play Mendez. As a director, Affleck stayed out of the frame for his first feature, “Gone Baby Gone,” but took a starring role in his follow-up, “The Town.”
“It struck me, right away, that you had this thriller and then, in equal measure, this comic Hollywood satire and this really intricate real-life C.I.A. spy story based on truth,” Affleck said. “That seemed like a fantastically interesting and unusual movie to be a part of, and I really wanted to direct it.
“And then, the actor side of my brain that's still in that phase of auditioning and trying to make connections and get work, asked the director of that movie for a job, and the director was in a tough spot and had to say yes,” he said, laughing.
Focus on events
At a time in which tensions are building in Syria, and several Middle Eastern governments are being reorganized or re-established following the “Arab Spring,” Affleck said he tried to not emphasize the politics surrounding the mission. While former President Jimmy Carter is heard during the closing credits discussing Mendez' role in the “Argo” incident, Affleck said his film concentrates on the actual events rather than hindsight analysis.
The complex and improbable story, a historically accurate account of the details surrounding the rescue, Affleck said, was all he needed.
“We went to great pains to try to make it very factual and fact-based, knowing that it was going to be coming out before an election in the United States when a lot of things get politicized,” Affleck said. “We obviously couldn't forecast how terrible things would become now, but even when we made the movie, we saw some resonance to countries that were in tumult.
“Naturally, we just wanted to be judicious and careful about presenting the facts, and also stand firmly behind that and say, ‘This is an examination of this part of the world,'” he said. “Just because a part of the world is undergoing strife and tumult, it doesn't mean you stop examining it, looking at it or talking about it.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Warner Bros.