Affleck's 'Argo' a new Cdn. caper
Ben Affleck (Handout)
Ben Affleck is about to change what you know about Canadian history.
Affleck’s newest movie, Argo, shines a light on a covert operation in the Middle East that came to be called the ‘Canadian Caper’. In 1979, when Iran was in turmoil after the revolution, dozens of Americans working at the U.S. embassy there were taken hostage. Six of the Americans managed to escape and were hidden by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor at his home in Tehran.
The six were issued fake Canadian passports, disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo, and successfully spirited out of the country. It was a daring rescue.
Ken Taylor was lauded as a hero and Canadian flags were flown in gratitude all over the United States. To Canadians of a certain generation, it was a defining moment in Canada/U.S. relations.
That the CIA and a couple of Hollywood players were just as crucial to the rescue story is information that was kept top secret for almost 20 years. It’s all there in Argo, a political thriller that also incorporates some wry comedy about the inner workings of Hollywood. Affleck directs Argo and stars in the film as Tony Mendez, the CIA exfiltration expert who concocts the fake movie scheme and spearheads the rescue. He gets Hollywood honchos involved to create a script, a production office and plenty of publicity for Argo, so all the world will regard the movie as a real project. And the Iranians won’t know they’re being duped.
Affleck is bringing the movie to the Toronto International Film Festival this week, where it will be a gala world premiere, ahead of its national release into theatres in October.
“I’m dying to see what the reaction is,” says Affleck, who spoke about Argo by phone from Los Angeles. “I’m definitely not afraid to say that my heart is really on my sleeve with this thing and I genuinely hope people like it … Toronto will be the first major place where anyone sees the movie, and it’s unique, given that the story is fundamentally about the Canadians. If Ken Taylor hadn’t taken these people in, there wouldn’t have been a rescue.”
Affleck majored in Middle Eastern studies in college and did an independent study on Iran that focused on the revolution. “So I knew as much about that as you can from something you studied in college,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh. “But I had no knowledge of the specifics of the story of getting out these six people.”
When he got the screenplay for Argo, says Affleck, he couldn’t believe what he was reading. “I thought, ‘God, this is too incredible to be true. Did this really happen?’ But lo and behold, it did, and I immediately thought, ‘This is spectacular.’ You know, whenever you strike upon something, that, if it wasn’t true people just wouldn’t buy it in a movie, I think you’ve found some really rich, fertile ground for telling a story.”
Among the more unbelievable elements in the Argo story is the role of respected Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman in the film). Chambers, who won a special Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes, played a key role in the Canadian Caper. “I was so surprised by that!” says Affleck. “He’d done the biggest sci-fi effects for movies and he was the foremost make-up guy, and he’d been working with the CIA for some time. He had a whole separate part of his shop, with a lot of locks on it, that was dedicated to his spy craft. So there was a guy who was well known in the entertainment world in Hollywood, who was, in effect, a CIA operative.”
Affleck has already proved his ability behind the camera with Gone, Baby Gone and The Town, but the stakes are, obviously, a bit higher with Argo. For one thing, he’s wading into volatile territory with a story set in the Middle East. “Whenever you’re on really tricky political ground, and you know no matter what you do, people have strongly held beliefs that will lead them to see the material through one lens or another, you just have to try to adhere really rigidly to the facts,” he says.
“It is true that these people were being pursued, so whatever you think about Iran, the United States, the revolution, the history — it is plainly true that these people were in jeopardy, and that helps create tension.”
Still, Affleck knows what he’s facing, politically speaking. “I’ve already read things on the Internet that say, ‘Oh, this is going to be some liberal screed,’ and a left wing blog that said, ‘This will be some CIA hero fantasy story,’ so people are already getting their hackles up in defence of whatever it is they believe.” Affleck is content to know that the story has been told honestly. “I was faithful to the facts and to telling a dramatic story, and one that was thrilling and exciting, within the confines of what actually took place.”
Telling stories has been Affleck’s work since he was an adolescent. The actor, 40, started young with small roles in TV movies and series, graduating to such films as Dazed and Confused and Chasing Amy in the mid-’90s. He wanted more. With his childhood friend Matt Damon, Affleck co-wrote and starred in the film Good Will Hunting (1997); nine Academy Award nominations (and two wins) later, Affleck and Damon were launched into A-list orbit.
Affleck then became blockbuster boy, starring in such fare as Armageddon, Shakepeare In Love, Pearl Harbor and The Sum of all Fears. His personal life became likewise high-profile, as he was linked romantically to such tabloid targets as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow; at the same time, starring in Gigli, Jersey Girl, Daredevil and the like didn’t help his cause.
A decade after Good Will Hunting, things changed for him dramatically. Affleck starred in the critically acclaimed Hollywoodland (2006) and made an auspicious feature directorial debut that same year with Gone Baby Gone, a film that stars his brother, Casey. As well, Affleck had married Jennifer Garner the year before and had become a father to the first of their three children. By 2010, when he starred in and directed the Oscar-nominated crime drama The Town, Affleck’s impressive second act was well underway.
Taking the reins as as storyteller was his ambition. “I started out in this business and had great luck and a great run,” says the actor, “and then I did some movies that I really wasn’t happy with. I thought that if I wanted to take responsibility for my career, I’ve got to be the one telling the stories. I’ve got to, kind of, live or die on my own taste, because it was just too frustrating to live or die on the taste of others, even when they were successful.
“I felt like I wanted to get the chance to put my voice out there and see if I could make it work.”
Storytelling, says Affleck, is one of the big themes of Argo, starting with the terrific yarn about making a movie that gets the Americans out of Iran. The Hollywood sequences, often humorous, are all about creating fantasy and telling stories and sparking the imagination, and those sequences are contrasted with the grim political realities in Tehran. “And what I like about all that, “ says Affleck, “is that it seems to suggest, hopefully in a subtle way, that the camera is more powerful than the gun.”
Affleck gushes over wife Garner
We had occasion to speak to Jennifer Garner recently about her new movie, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green, and found her unique combo of intellect, beauty and grace to be a tad daunting. We mention this in passing to Ben Affleck, her husband, and he just laughs.
“Believe me,” he says, “I’m daunted by it every day.”
Garner radiates goodness. That’s the best way we can describe it.
“She does have a fundamental kindness and empathy in her,” says Affleck, “that I think is rare, and incredibly appealing and wonderful.”
He continues, “She is just kind, and genuinely interested in other people, and really a good person. People respond to that. She has great, real friends. She’s definitely atypical of someone in this business because this business tends to cultivate a kind of solipsism, narcissism — almost demands it — so resisting it and being someone who’s the antithesis of that is really unusual.
“And it’s one of the things I really love about her.”
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