Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In November 1979, a group of Islamic revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage, holding them captive for 444 nail-biting days. At least, that’s the story that ran on the front pages of U.S. newspapers and was printed in history books. But there was another chapter to the Iran hostage crisis — a top secret subplot that remained classified until 1996.
During the chaos of the initial assault on the embassy, six other Americans managed to escape and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran. And there they stayed for nearly three months, waiting to be discovered and possibly killed, until a daring and downright bizarre rescue mission freed them. Antonio J. Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” expert, hatched a plan to pose as a Canadian film producer scouting locations in Iran for a schlocky science-fiction film called Argo. It was such an unusual request that no one in Iran seemed to question its veracity. Once there, Mendez sneaked the six Americans out by pretending they were part of his B-movie crew. You may not be able to make this stuff up, but apparently you can turn it into an awards-season thriller.
Shortly after he finished directing the 2010 Beantown heist film The Town, Affleck read Chris Terrio’s screenplay about the Iran mission. “It was one of those rare instances where a good script falls out of the sky and lands in your lap,” says Affleck. “The big part of the whole thing is, Can you believe this really happened? I called George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who were producing it, and told them I loved it. And they were like, ‘Great, let’s go.'”
Affleck admits he was drawn to the script not only because it was so surreal but because he’d long been interested in that part of the world (he majored in Middle Eastern studies at Occidental College before dropping out). Plus, it was a chance to prove that he could direct a movie that — unlike The Town and his 2007 debut, Gone Baby Gone — wasn’t set in Boston. “I liked the first two movies that I did,” he says, “but I also didn’t want to be pigeonholed as only making movies between Providence and southern New Hampshire.”
When it came time to cast the film, the first targets on Affleck’s wish list were Alan Arkin (as a flashy, past-his-prime Hollywood rainmaker who helps pull off the outlandish scheme) and John Goodman (as a makeup artist). “I knew Ben as an actor and I liked a lot of what he had done,” says Arkin. “But when I saw Gone Baby Gone and The Town, I was enormously impressed. It’s the work of a first-rate director.” Adds Goodman, “Ben really knows his onions. He’s so good in this movie that you forget that he directed it too.” For the main character of Tony Mendez, Affleck never looked far. “To me, it was clear that I wanted to direct and play that part,” he says. “I met the real Tony Mendez, and he was the exact age I am when he pulled it off — 39.” Later, he snagged Bryan Cranston, who was on hiatus from Breaking Bad, to play Mendez’s world-weary CIA handler.
Affleck filmed the turbulent Tehran scenes in the more Western-friendly Istanbul, and got a rare green light from the CIA to shoot at its headquarters in Langley, Va. “I knew some of the people over there from when I did The Sum of All Fears,” says Affleck, laughing at the memory of his less-than-stellar 2002 installment in the Jack Ryan franchise. “So at least that film paid off in that way!”
Still, maybe the hairiest part of the production was designing the looks of his ’70s-era cast. The movie is lousy with Burt Reynolds porn mustaches and regrettable Me Decade fashion choices. None more so than Affleck’s own shaggy-bangs haircut. “That was one of those things where the leader has to dive in first,” says Affleck. “If I’m going to ask other people to have really humiliating ’70s hair, I had to be the first one. It was pretty chic, but I couldn’t wait to cut it off.”