TORONTO: Given current diplomatic tensions over Iran, Ben Affleck says his new spy thriller “Argo” couldn’t be more topical, even though it is set more than 30 years ago.
The film, which Affleck both directs and stars in, is based on the CIA’s role in smuggling six American diplomats out of Iran in 1979 under the unlikely guise of a fake movie production.
It premiered at the Toronto film festival to thunderous applause and standing ovations, and is already being hailed as a major Oscar contender.
Filmed in the grainy style of the 1970s, the movie depicts how the diplomats escaped the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at the height of Iran’s revolution by taking refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.
Traversing back and forth between Tehran and Washington, it borrows from “The Master of Disguise,” the memoir of a former CIA specialist Tony Mendez, which details how he devised an incredible escape plan to pose as a Canadian film crew.
More than 30 years since the embassy crisis, Affleck, who plays Mendez, says little has changed in relations between the West and Iran.
Some things have changed. The day the movie premiered in Toronto, the Canadian government suspended its diplomatic relations with Iran, closed its embassy there and called the Tehran government’s disputed nuclear program the biggest threat to global security.
The United States has not had a functioning embassy in Iran since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days.
“While the movie is 30 years old, it really is still relevant,” Affleck told reporters in Toronto Saturday. “Both in the sense that it’s about the unintended consequences of revolution and in the sense that we’re dealing with the exact same issues now that we were then.”
The 40-year-old actor, who is taking a new career turn with the political thriller after directing a series of stories about Boston, including “The Town,” also linked the film’s focus on the fallout from social unrest to the wider regional conflict today in the Middle East.
“There are some real parallels going on with the Arab Spring to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria,” he said, “places where the unintended consequences of revolutions are playing out.”
“Argo” begins with a short history lesson. It scans the decades before 1979, including U.S. support for Reza Shah Pahlevi and how his prolonged stay in the United States after fleeing Iran in 1979 so enraged revolutionaries seeking justice after decades of despotic rule.
The drama soon switches to the storming of the embassy and the planning and execution of the rescue, with Alan Arkin and John Goodman providing some comic input as Hollywood veterans teaching Affleck’s Mendez how to make his plan seem real.
“So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything?” Goodman asks Affleck. “You’ll fit right in.”
Affleck said he had “no idea” if Oscar voters would be favorable toward a film that both celebrates and pokes fun at Hollywood, but added that “the Hollywood satire aspect of it ... that is the component I liked the best.”
Both he and writer Chris Terrio maintain that the broad thesis of the film is based on actual events, although traditional Hollywood dramatic license includes a scene where Iranian police chase a jumbo jet down a runway.
Terrio, who also drew on a 2007 Wired Magazine article called “The Great Escape,” called it “a fictionalized version of real events.”
The U.S. role in the mission was kept under wraps until it was declassified by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.
“Sure, there are aspects of it that are dramatized,” Terrio said. “And there are aspects of it that are real, that aren’t on the record, they are classified. But you kind of get to fudge a little and stick it in as long as you call it fiction. It’s a mix.”
Asked whether the big screen version might overshadow the old hero of the story, Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, Affleck said the film “does resurrect this idea of ‘Thank You Canada.’”
Affleck said the producers had been unable to find Iranians willing to be in the movie while filming in Turkey, as they were “afraid of the repercussions – of what would happen to their families back home.”
Affleck said Iranian film director and actor Rafi Pitts, who plays a visa officer in the film, predicted that Iranians would still watch the movie even if it wasn’t distributed in Iran.