Hostage to Hollywood

Ben Affleck is hoping his latest directorial effort, about a real-life CIA plot to rescue six captives in Iran, will sendhis star soaring again, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 10:14am

If ever there's a career to demonstrate the fickle nature of Hollywood then it belongs to Ben Affleck. Bursting on the scene with a starring role in Chasing Amy, and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar for best writing (original screenplay) with his friend, co-writer and co-star Matt Damon, Affleck was a golden boy of the thriving US indie scene of the 1990s. Then came the blockbusters - Armageddon, Pearl Harbor - followed by the fallow years. Facing intense media scrutiny over his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, his choices got worse by the film - typified by their abysmal 2003 romantic comedy Gigli.

"I've experienced wild ends of the spectrum - I've been through all different kinds of movies," Affleck says, sitting in London's Soho Hotel and looking more relaxed than his roller-coaster career might suggest. "For better or worse, I've seen a lot of different sides of this business. I had an acting teacher who's a really smart guy, who said: 'If you believe them when they say you're good, you better believe them when they say you're bad.' What he meant, in part, was to develop your own criteria for evaluating your work … and maybe your own life as well." He pauses, strokes his chin. "I can't say I'm always able to do that."

Still, nobody could quite have predicted Affleck's reinvention. Never mind Surviving Christmas - his 2004 yuletide abomination - he survived a Hollywood slump that would have destroyed most. Moreover, he has emerged from the ashes of a ruined career as a director to die for. His 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, is a gristle-hard adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel about a child kidnapping. Three years later came The Town, another taut Boston-set drama.

"Switching to being a director was daunting internally because there's this sense that it's a real step up, in terms of responsibility," he says. "I was quite scared when I got Gone Baby Gone - I was quite terrified by the whole shoot and made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot. Fortunately because of Warner Brothers, I got another crack at directing and I really love it. It's just one of those things, like jumping off a diving board - you just have to do it. It's scary, you don't know if you're going to do it … but luckily, as actors, we spend a lot of time on set, so we know what that feels like."

Now comes Argo, arguably his most accomplished movie to date. "I think Argo was the riskiest film I've made and also the most rewarding."

You can see why, with its juxtaposition of the gritty feel of his first two feature films with a wry look at "Hollyweird". And while it's based on true events, you're unlikely to find a stranger story than this. In 1979, Islamist students and militants raided the US embassy in Tehran, with 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days. Six people escaped, taking refuge in the Canadian embassy, and it's the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) hare-brained plan to rescue the six that forms the subject of Argo.

Only declassified in 1997 - and brought to light in a 2007 article for Wired magazine by Joshuah Bearman - it emerges the CIA sent an operative, Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), to Iran posing as a Hollywood film producer. The plan? To pretend he's on a location scout with his crew of six, then leave the country right under the noses of the authorities. The film? A sci-fi extravaganza called "Argo", based on a real script and put into production by two Hollywood players that Mendez recruits - make-up/effects guru John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).

In reality, Siegel was called Barry Geller, a would-be producer who attempted to put together a sci-fi movie based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light, even recruiting X-Men co-creator Jack Kirby to draft some designs for the film. While it was Mendez who renamed the fake film "Argo", Affleck says that what we see in his movie is not taken from the original Lord of Light project because of rights issues. "We opted to create our own [film] in the spirit of what they did." And it's these moments - recalling the low-grade B-movies that litter Hollywood - that offer light relief from the increasingly tense scenes in Iran.

With California doubling for Iran (it "proved too politically difficult" to shoot there), Affleck claims he doesn't want Argo to be seen as a polemical piece. "It's not a political film," he says, before adding a caveat. "But one can't help but be sympathetic to Foreign Service officers who are serving in dangerous places. One of the things I'm now particularly most proud of is that [ Argo] pays homage to those folks. And to the people close to the clandestine services."

Ironically, the film has come in for criticism for playing fast and loose with some facts - from the rather Hollywood-style ending (a ludicrous runway chase) to the way it minimises the participation of the Canadian government in the rescue operation. To his credit, Affleck did change the movie's postscript to read: "The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments."

It is behaviour like this that suggests Affleck, who turned 40 earlier this year, has matured greatly over the past decade. Lest we forget, back in 2001, his party lifestyle led him to check into a rehabilitation clinic to be treated for alcoholism; his father Tim, a mechanic turned social worker, suffered from alcohol dependency, a fact which Affleck blamed for the break-up of his parents when he was 11.

Having dated Gwyneth Paltrow and then J-Lo, Affleck has settled down, marrying his Daredevil co-star Jennifer Garner in 2005. He became a father for the third time this year when Garner gave birth to Samuel in February, adding to their daughters Violet (six) and Seraphina (three). If that doesn't suggest how Affleck has changed, you only have to look at his post- Gigli roles - from playing real-life embittered TV star George Reeves in Hollywoodland to his compromised congressman in State of Play.

If these suggest a new daring, nothing quite compares to his almost wordless role in To the Wonder, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. A melancholic romantic drama co-starring Rachel McAdams, it put Affleck in the hands of visionary director Terrence Malick ( The Tree of Life). "One of the really valuable lessons I learned is that he's not making his movies for anyone but himself," Affleck says. "It's an expression of himself as an artist. There is a lot [of] courage in that."

He hasn't forgotten his old friend Damon either. He plans to direct him in a biopic of Boston-Irish gangster Whitey Bulger, which is also set to star Affleck's brother Casey. "I really want to wait to get it right. You can't f*** up Whitey Bulger. That's it, that's the only thing that will be remembered for the rest of your career." No pressure then. Still, the way he's been going of late, the only way is up.

Argo opens on Nov 15