A realtime resonance for Ben Affleck’s tale of outwitting Iran in 1979

A realtime resonance for Ben Affleck’s tale of outwitting Iran in 1979

‘We didn’t know Iran would become the biggest story in the region again,’ says Joshuah Bearman, the writer behind the fantastical CIA rescue story ‘Argo,’ which is opening this weekend’s Haifa Film Festival

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Ben Affleck in "Argo" (Courtesy Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck in "Argo" (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

With the possibility of war with Iran on the collective brain, it’s either brilliant or an astoundingly short-sighted idea to show “Argo,” the new Ben Affleck film about a little-known rescue during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, at the upcoming opening of the 28th Haifa Film Festival.

Telling the story of the clever CIA rescue effort of six American diplomatic workers who were caught in Tehran at the start of the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, “Argo” is already being considered an Oscar contender for this year’s Best Picture award. The Haifa festival will be its third showing before the official October 12 release in the US.

“They offered and we agreed,” said Adi Wenderow, the festival’s PR coordinator, of the decision to show “Argo” at the Saturday night, September 29, opening of the annual festival. In all, 170 new films will be screened during the 10-day festival, considered one of the country’s leading cinematic events.

Given the fantastical Hollywood scheming that goes on in the film, and the chronological distance of the story from the current stockpiling of gas masks and emergency supplies, the movie may be enough of a escapist caper to make it a draw for Israeli moviegoers.

There’s no chance that Affleck, who directed and stars in the film, will be attending the festival, as reported in some Israeli newspapers. But he introduced the film as a “labor of love” at its first showing at the recent Telluride Festival, where attendees aren’t told what they’re seeing until they’re inside the theater and where seats are in major demand since the films often turn out to be Academy Award contenders. It was also shown at last week’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it was the first runner-up for the festival’s People’s Choice Award, often an Oscar predictor as well.

It was Affleck who pushed the project from screenplay to film, but credit for the initial story goes to American writer Joshuah Bearman, who first wrote a 2007 piece for Wired magazine entitled “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.” In the article, Bearman takes readers back to November 4, 1979 — the day when anti-American Iranians stormed the US Embassy compound in Tehran and sent embassy workers on a race to outwit possible capture — and tells how a CIA operative came up with the idea of faking the filming of a sci-fi movie in Iran as a way of deflecting and disguising their ultimately successful rescue.

Ben Affleck and the cast of hostages of "Argo" (Courtesy Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck and the cast of hostages of ‘Argo’ (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Bearman first heard the story from a friend, as aspects of the rescue mission were known but only in part. It was widely acknowledged that six Americans had managed to get out in 1979, but the role of the CIA and their use of a fake Hollywood film as a front wasn’t public, at least not until part of it were released in 1997, said Bearman.

“Pieces of the story were sort of around and no one had written a narrative account of it,” said Bearman, who writes for major American publications including Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine and contributes to the radio show “This American Life.” “I was just starting to get into narrative writing, and I first tracked down Tony, the Ben Affleck character.”

Bearman ended up talking to nearly all of the American escapees, putting together the plot that had never been told in its entirety.

“Wired took it because it was a great caper and a yarn and it’s contemporary in the sense that this episode is the opening salvo of what some would call the clash of civilizations,” said Bearman. “It was a disaster for us, but it was an episode with a silver lining.”

At the time of the Wired story, the US was in the midst of the war with Iraq — a time, Bearman added, when Americans were witnessing the limitations of the use of brute force as well as the spectacular failure of certain military attempts. The Iran episode stood in stark contrast, utilizing “finesse and guile and cultural understanding, a whole different tactic to get hostages out,” he said. “It stood in stark contrast to what’s happening with Iran now.”

The article was optioned for a screenplay five years ago by George Clooney’s production company, at a time when Iran was not the biggest story in the region, noted Bearman. The movie follows the same structure as Bearman’s original article, but with more dramatic tension. It’s a real “nail-biter,” he said, adding that screenwriter Chris Terrio added additional research, creating “a solid and original script” with “great, truthful” direction from Affleck.

Affleck stars in the movie, along with a stellar ensemble cast that includes Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber (who starred with Affleck’s wife Jennifer Garner in TV show “Alias” and married them in 2005) and Tate Donovan. The Hollywood Reporter called “Argo” “an edge-of-your-seat thriller (“We did suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this”), a laugh-out-loud comedy (“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”) and a genuine tearjerker.”

“It’s gripping and also really true to the reality of what it meant to go in and get those guys out,” said Bearman. “We didn’t know that Iran would become the biggest story in the region again.”


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