Like his film Argo, Ben Affleck deftly moved between subjects both light and the dark on Saturday at the press conference following the movie's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The director and actor, joined by screenwriter Chris Terrio and members of Argo's cast, presided over a media session that ranged from questions about the actors' 1970s-era hairstyles to the film's debut at a time of renewed political tension between Canada and Iran.
Argo revisits the incident dubbed the Canadian Caper, in which then Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife Pat hid six American diplomats at their home in Tehran in 1979. The Americans had escaped the Iranian militants who had overwhelmed their embassy and took more than 70 hostages.Taylor then helped the six "house guests" flee Iran safely.
Argo's world premiere at TIFF came Friday, the very day Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced the closing of the Canadian embassy in Tehran and the imminent expelling of Iranian diplomats from Canada — a coincidence that Affleck met with disbelief when he heard the news.
The situation shows "the long standing tensions between Iran and Canada, which is reflected [in the film]," he told reporters.
Though the movie takes place 30 years ago, its events are "still relevant. Both in the sense that it's about the unintended consequences of revolution and in the sense that we're dealing with exactly the same issues we were dealing with then. I was quite struck by it," Affleck said.
"The West — we, the Canadians, the British — are having to examine what our roles have been historically, what the result has been for our involvement and ... what the benefits are of getting into the "getting into business with people" business, in terms of these leaders. I think [Argo's] definitely relevant on a sort of global, political level."
CIA expert's role takes the spotlight
After the CIA declassified information about the rescue in the late 1990s, it emerged that an "exfiltration" expert named Tony Mendez was actually the key figure responsible for the rescue. Argo depicts his implausible — but ultimately successful —ploy: to disguise the American diplomats as a Canadian film crew in Tehran, scouting out locations for a Hollywood sci-fi movie.
"The most potent aspect of the whole film is that you're presented with an almost untenable situation with an extraordinarily creative solution that could have blown up half the world [and it] was done without any violence whatsoever. Not one gun," noted acting veteran Alan Arkin, who portrays a Hollywood mogul who helps build an authentic cover story for Mendez and the hidden diplomats.
"That to me, is one of the most important aspects of the film."
With Argo, Affleck's third time in the director's chair, he manages to weave a detailed, albeit dramatized, account of a politically charged, true-life event with a skewering of Hollywood.
Though time spent with Mendez helped infuse the production with a host of real-life details (from how he shed his wedding ring before each mission to the way Canadians actually pronounce "Toronto"), Both Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio admitted to taking some dramatic licence to make Argo a taut and suspenseful film.
However, both emphasized that the story remains accurate to the spirit of the real-life incident.
On Ken Taylor
In Argo, Canadian actor Victor Garber portrays Ken Taylor. While he didn't have extensive knowledge of the incident before the film, Garber nonetheless felt a great responsibility in portraying the former Canadian ambassador.
"He was asked about this movie and he said to the journalist ... 'I just hope they don't make me too heroic.' I think he's probably very comfortable [with the film]. I don't know if he's seen it. But I think he would be, because in fact he remains heroic — hugely heroic — because he took them in. I think the way he's depicted and the way [Argo's] written, it completely fulfills that. I hope he will be pleased."
"I think the kinds of things that are really important to be true [are depicted]... like the relationship between U.S. and Canada," Affleck said.
"One of the things I loved about the movie screening [in Toronto] was that it does say, it does resurrect this idea of 'Thank you, Canada.' Of valuing Canada, respecting Canada. Of reaching an arm in friendship across the border," he continued.
"Yes,Tony's involvement was not revealed before, but what's unchanged is that six Americans' lives were in danger and they needed refuge.There were folks who didn't want to stick their necks out. The Canadians did.They said 'We'll risk ourselves, our diplomatic standing, our lives to harbour these six Americans that we owe nothing to' — just because it's the moral right thing to do. They did it. As a result of that, those lives were saved. That is absolutely unchanged."
The filmmaker, who majored in Middle Eastern studies in college, also acknowledged his gratification at completing a project that was "really in my zone of interest."
"Warner Bros. took a chance on me to make a movie that was a little bit unconventional [and] that had elements that could trip you up," he said.
"I got to make a movie that I'm really proud of and that has themes in it that I'm really interested in. I've worked on movies where I didn't feel that way and I know the difference."
TIFF continues through Sept. 16.