To score Oscar nominations in the all-important best picture and best director categories, all you have to do is make one of the very best movies of the year. To actually win those awards, though, you have to persuade members of the academy, often one by one, that the people spreading vicious innuendo about your movie are full of crap.
And so, on Friday, Dec. 7, Ben Affleck and three other members of the creative team behind "Argo" attended a luncheon for journalists and academy members at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. They were joined by Tony Mendez, the CIA officer who conceived and ultimately executed the stranger-than-fiction plot to smuggle six State Department employees out of revolutionary Iran by disguising them as Hollywood filmmakers. "Argo" is based on that true story, and Affleck both directed the film and plays Mendez in the film's lead role. His first objective at the lunch: to neutralize the notion that the film plays fast and loose with the facts. Objective No. 2: to demonstrate that "Argo" is at least as topical as Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," which politicians in Washington have been falling over themselves to screen in recent weeks.
"That was a big part of making the movie for me, was how relevant it was," Affleck said during a Q&A session at the lunch. The film, he argued, speaks to the Arab Spring, the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the attack on a U.S. installation in Benghazi and, above all, "the most pressing foreign-policy crisis I think that faces the United States, which is how we're gonna relate to Iran. And what you see in this movie is the beginning of that conflict between the U.S. and Iran -- hopefully you see the roots of it, you see somebody who has navigated it successfully, and you also see ways in which we've been stymied.
"Because we were talking about America's larger role in the Mideast," he added, "I felt a kind of responsibility that I didn't feel making 'Mall Rats.'"
Discussing the film with guests at his table, Affleck said he hoped revisiting the Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days, could help America "segue from the age of belligerence." Though President Jimmy Carter's handling of the crisis was seen as a major failure -- one that helped cost him his reelection bid against Ronald Reagan -- Affleck pointed out that, on the bright side, "it was resolved peacefully and through diplomacy."
It wasn't long before someone at the table referenced the questions that have been raised concerning the film's fidelity to the historical record. "My movie is -- it's extremely accurate," Affleck said. "It's Tony's story. It was so faithful to him and his story. We compressed some things and did things that any other sort of 'based on a true story' movie would do, because you can't have a five-hour movie and you have to tell a story expeditiously, but it was all true."
According to Affleck, the charges of inaccuracy arose because Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who helped shelter the six State Department employees (or "houseguests," in the movie's shorthand) and arrange for their escape, "got his feelings hurt." Until the story of Mendez and the CIA's involvement became public, Taylor had enjoyed something close to full credit for saving them, and he has taken it upon himself to defend Canada's indispensable role in the episode. "That sort of colored the perception that the movie got some of the facts wrong," Affleck said.
When this reporter joked that it was nice to know Harvey Weinstein hadn't been the one spreading those stories, Affleck said, "No, but he would. He would in a second."
During the Q&A, the Canadian-born actor Victor Garber, who plays Taylor in the movie, said he has not met the man himself but feels confident that he treated him fairly. "To me, although I'm sure he would have preferred if the movie had been 'The Ken Taylor Story,' I think he's portrayed very beautifully and as heroic as he actually is."
One audience member asked about the film's dramatic climax, in which -- spoiler alert -- a fleet of cars driven by members of the Revolutionary Guard chase the houseguests' plane as it lifts off. "There were no cars chasing them down the runway," admitted Affleck, who got a big laugh when he added, "Those were my cars, and I wanted to get the rental [fees]. I was like, 'Maybe we use it, maybe we don't,' you know what I mean? Turned out to be good."
The creative team took another liberty with the character of Lester Siegel, played in the film by Alan Arkin. In real life, Mendez's Hollywood friend John Chambers (John Goodman in the movie) enlisted the help of a fellow makeup artist named Bob Sidell, but Sidell wound up being transformed into Siegel on-screen. "That's one of the ways that we sort of embellished," Affleck said. "In real life, he wasn't as fancy -- he wasn't like Jerry Weintraub, which is sort of what he is now. He was much more of a functionary-type guy who was buddies with John Chambers. But it was more fun to have him be a little bit more personable. [Sidell] is a very nice guy. I used to go around saying, you know, that he and John Chambers had passed away, and then I met him. And he is still living and does not have a sense of humor about [my] telling people that he is dead."
The filmmakers also changed the gender and nationality of the Taylors' housekeeper, played in the movie by Sheila Vand. "I think there were two [housekeepers]," Affleck said. "One of them was a Filipino guy who had to disappear and go into hiding the same way that [the female housekeeper in the movie] did. I changed it because I wanted to represent a Persian character that wasn't a fanatic, that wasn't railing against the United States, but that's just somebody like all of us who's trying to go to work and feed their family and do all the things they need to do, and who's kind of buffeted by the political winds that are kicked up by others, particularly by others that are higher up than them."
Perhaps inevitably, the film's reputation within the CIA is difficult to gauge. Because Mendez is so well respected there, Affleck said, he was given "tremendous access," including permission to shoot at the agency's headquarters. But he also had to include a disclaimer in the credits. "The CIA doesn't endorse this movie, essentially, even though they granted us some degree of access," Affleck explained. "They both accepted us and repudiated us, which I feel is very like the CIA."
Mendez saw the film in Washington with CIA Director David Petraeus, who later resigned amid reports of an extramarital affair. "We shared a popcorn and I said, 'General, do you think you're gonna play this at the CIA?' and he said, 'Yeah, if we do it right. I really like it.' We had a nice chat and he went away thinking about the movie -- and never came back." Mendez paused while the audience laughed, then continued: "But seriously, the CIA called the other day and said, 'Can we get a poster?' So we got them a poster. And of course they were all really enamored about having Ben come visit every now and then."
So there you have it: "Argo" would have been screened by the CIA, had it not been for Petraeus' career-ending scandal. As for the film's occasional forays into fiction, they seem to fall within the standard boundaries of Hollywood-ification. (If you want the real story, read the excellent "Wired" article on which "Argo" was based.)
What Affleck really wants, though, is to show that "Argo" can exert a positive influence on the national debate over foreign policy. And even if "Argo" doesn't nail every factual detail, it does get at a central truth about U.S.-Iran relations: namely, that we've been at this for a long time; that both sides have contributed to the conflict; and that there are ways to resolve a crisis that don't involve spilling blood.
During the conversation over lunch, Affleck took issue with the notion that filmmakers can expect audiences to grasp that a story is being told from one character's perspective, with all the prejudices and distortions that entails. (Expect this issue to arise in a big way when "Zero Dark Thirty," with its semi-sympathetic view of harsh interrogations, comes out later this month.)
"When you're a filmmaker, especially in America, American audiences take for granted this idea that you're showing them the truth," he said.