Ben Affleck's Middle Eastern manoeuvres

By Michele Manelis

In his third directorial offering, Ben Affleck tackles the Iranian revolution of 1979 when 52 American embassy workers in Tehran were taken hostage.

During the initial chaos as student militants stormed the building, six diplomats managed to slip away and found refuge, albeit temporarily, in the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Telling how the six were extracted from Iran disguised as a film crew, Affleck takes the audience on an entertaining, edge-of-your-seat ride.

He also plays CIA officer Tony Mendez, who hatched the plan - mount a fictitious Hollywood science fiction movie production, ask Tehran for visas to scout for locations and then get the diplomats out of the country disguised as Canadian crew members.

Argo was the name of that faux movie which is now a real one.

And while the film comes with contemporary resonances - the 1979 hostage crisis helped eject Jimmy Carter from the White House while the present incumbent is now under pressure over attacks on United States missions abroad - Affleck says the film is actually a politically optimistic one.

Says Affleck: "I really liked the idea that it was based on a true story. It was one that's hopeful at a time when there's a lot to be cynical about in terms of the relationship between the West and the Middle East. I think the movie portrays the Iranian people as being caught in the middle, rather than making the Iranians all bad guys."

The story originated from a Wired magazine article about this little-known operation which was brought to the attention of producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Having directed heist film The Town, Affleck asked Warner Bros "to send me the best script they had".

"They sent me a draft of Argo and I thought it was amazing. I really wanted to do it, and George and Grant were kind enough to approve me for it."

It's not surprising they were confident in the hands of Affleck. He garnered positive reviews for his first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, in 2007, and rave reviews for The Town, in 2010, in which he also starred and raked in over US$155 million ($189.9 million).

But it was his knowledge of the Middle East that clinched the deal for him. "When I was at college, I wanted to be a Middle Eastern studies major at a time when everybody was studying international relations, and in order to get a job you had to know about Russia. Learning about the Middle East was not seen as a relevant subject," he says. "But to me, it always had this mysterious allure. It was an opaque world of swirling tensions and allegiances I wanted to understand."

The film was shot primarily in Turkey, substituting for Iran.

And with some digital help, the landscape looks authentic.

"I was disappointed I wasn't able to go to Iran, mostly because I just wanted to look at the physical spaces and get some shots of the Tehran skyline. And while you might not realise it, the visual effects were huge. I felt like I was making one of those superhero movies."

Affleck leads the impressive cast including Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Victor Garber.

"These guys, they just deliver. It feels real and never seems like schtick or a joke," he says.

Affleck is looking forward to reaction to the film in the region it depicts.

"The Middle East is a real complicated place. Like Iran, we think of it as kind of monolithic, but it's full of fractures and divisions. I think it'll play in places like Saudi Arabia, or Jordan. I don't think it would be an issue there at all." He smiles. "But I mean, it's not going to play in Iran."

It's important to Affleck that the movie is seen as even-handed.

"It's not an incendiary movie in the sense that it doesn't say anything that the people haven't known for decades. It's not deliberately controversial in the sense that it's meant to provoke. It's simply showing as best I can, factually, a story that took place 30 years ago," he says. "And frankly, we are still dealing with the same issues these days.

"The movie looks like what we see on CNN now. I wish it weren't so topical, in a way. It's sad. It's tragic that we are still at this place. All the research I did, looking at these film reels from 1979, it could be literally the evening news. It shows you how hard it is to make progress."

Some may view Argo as another patriotic American vehicle of self-congratulation. He disagrees.

"I know that audiences are used to seeing fictional narratives about Americans as heroes. I like the fact that the international co-operation aspect of the movie with the Canadians bespeaks something good. I really value countries working together harmoniously and co-operatively for peace," he says. "It says something in contrast to the vulgar myths propagated by stories about Americans beating their chests and saving all the other helpless people. And hopefully that gets done less and less these days."

Already, there's buzz that Affleck will take home a directing Oscar to add to the 1998 best original screenplay Academy Award he and Matt Damon won for Good Will Hunting.

He's cautiously optimistic. "Who knows? It's very competitive out there and I'm just knocking on wood. I tend to look one step in front of me. I don't look into the stratosphere."

Did NZ embassy leave escapers out in the cold?

Argo is based-on-a-true-story non-fiction. So what are we to make of the line in the movie that states the New Zealand and British embassies turned away the six United States embassy escapees looking for shelter?

Affleck chooses his words carefully. "Well, I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair.

"But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go.

"But I believe it was New Zealand who turned them on to the Canadians, so it wasn't merely, 'oh, we're going to turn you away'. It was more about where was the best place for them to go. And the truth is that above all, the Canadians were the most heroic in that sense and in the movie, it does not mean to diminish anyone else."

Who: Ben Affleck
What: Argo
When: Opens at cinemas October 25

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 31 Oct 2014 03:43:55 Processing Time: 461ms