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In The Middle East

26 October 2012 | 11:20 am | Tom Hawking

"If I was making a political movie I'd say so... I've never been shy about being political. A political movie directs you — if you make a movie like that you're like an air traffic controller, saying, 'Go over here.' And that's not what I wanted [with this film]."

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Some stories are so incredible that they pretty much tell themselves. So it goes with the true story behind Ben Affleck's new film Argo — the film is based on the 1980 "exfiltration" operation to rescue six American diplomats from the residence of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran, where they'd taken refuge after the 1979 storming of the city's US embassy.

The details of how the operation worked have only been declassified, and they're so outlandish that the plot of Argo would probably been rejected out of hand by studio execs if it wasn't, y'know, true: a CIA exfiltration specialist inveigled his way into Tehran and trained the diplomats to talk their way out of the country by, um, posing as a Canadian film crew who were in Iran to scout locations for a sci-fi film. To lend the story credibility, the CIA set up and funded a production company in Hollywood, which produced storyboards, merchandise and staged an elaborate unveiling of the (fake) script.

You can see the story's appeal — the only surprise is that it's taken as long as it has for someone to adapt it for the silver screen. That task fell to Affleck, who both directed and plays the lead role in Argo. He's a better choice than you might think — for a start, it turns out that he has something of an affinity for the subject matter, having studied Middle Eastern studies in college. "I didn't want to major in acting or directing or theatre," he tells Front Row over lunch at the Beverley Hilton in Los Angeles. "And I've always been interested in the Middle East. I loved Lawrence of Arabia… I had slightly romantic ideals [laughs]. It struck me as a mysterious place, and also the root of a lot of the conflicts that bedevilled [America] and the world.

"It was a very lonely major when I took it on," he continues. "Everyone was studying the Soviet Union if they were doing political science — if you wanted to get a job [in that field], you were supposed to know something about the Soviets, because that was all that anyone cared about. But I really liked it — I really found it interesting, and it served me well making this movie. And as it turned out, it was even more relevant to our lives to what I knew at the time."

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Front Row has spoken to pretty much everyone involved with Argo over the course of today — producer, scriptwriter, actors — and all of them have been at pains to make it clear that they don't consider Argo to be a political film. But seriously, come on: this is a film about America getting one over Iran, a subject that can't not be political in 2012. Surely its director appreciates this?

Affleck sighs. "If I was making a political movie I'd say so," he says. "I've never been shy about being political. But I came across this movie, and what's interesting about it isn't the politics, in the sense that politics advocates a certain position. A political movie directs you — if you make a movie like that you're like an air traffic controller, saying, 'Go over here.' And that's not what I wanted [with this film], because I think if you go into [the film] looking for that, it destroys your experience of the movie."

Having said that, though, Affleck says he is aware of the danger that some people might see this as an exercise in 'USA! USA!' cheerleading. "It's a movie that I'd hate to see politicized. I wouldn't want it to be exploited and held up to suit anyone else's political agenda, whether that's the election here in the United States, or internationally, where there are a lot of people with a lot of strong feelings with what should happen around Iran."

Ultimately, he argues that it's simply a good story, and should be treated as such — perhaps presaging the criticism that Argo's attracted since its release that it presents a view of history that's ultimately dramatized and simplified. In particular, the film has drawn the ire of British and Canadian diplomats involved in the actual events on which the film was based, as well as (less surprisingly) the Iranian government. "I hated to have it feel like a history lesson," Affleck says of the film's take on history, "because who wants to see a history lesson? It'd feel like those movies they show you in sixth grade that you fall asleep watching."

Politics aside, perhaps the most notable aspect of Argo is just what a strange piece of work it is, skipping from laugh-out-loud Hollwood satire to tense hostage drama and back again. Perhaps Affleck's greatest achievement with the film is that he manages to take a story that you wouldn't believe if someone told you, and makes it feel real. "[I had] a very strict discipline about realism," he says. "You can't not allow anything to be present — from performances to set decoration and everything else — that you can't justify [or] doesn't seem real. Once you have the performances feeling real, and the universe and the world feeling real, it actually falls in that the other stuff feels real."

Amusingly, Affleck's tactics for getting the diplomats' plight to "feel real" extended to hardcore method acting strategies: "I wanted [the actors] to feel familiar with one another, to feel like they'd been cooped up together. I wanted them to live in this parallel world, to live together reading only magazines from that time, watching movies from the '70s, so they truly had a collective set of references. I took away their smartphones, disconnected them for the rest of the world. One actor wanted to bring in his yoga mat, which I finally let him do after a long argument. He was like, 'Look, there was yoga in the '70s!' I was like, 'Look, your character wouldn't be doing yoga.' I could tell he was rolling his eyes, that he thought this was method director bullshit, that it was ridiculous. But when he came out at the end, he was like, 'I think that whole exercise actually helped!' I converted him."