Telluride: Affleck and “Argo”

The Telluride Film Festival regularly screens unannounced sneak previews of major films. This year, “Argo” was shown, presented by Ben Affleck, director and lead actor.

Ben Affleck at outdoor Telluride panel with director Michael Winterbottom (l)

Ben Affleck at outdoor Telluride panel with director Michael Winterbottom (l)

“Argo” is based on the experiences of six US Embassy employees who hid with the Canadian ambassador in Tehran when the American Embassy was overrun in 1979 and 56 Americans were taken hostage. The screenplay by Chris Terio is based on secret information that became declassified during the Clinton administration.

Narration gives background on anti-American feeling because of US support of the government of the Shah who lived in opulence and excess while many of his subjects starved. When six employees working in the visa section of the Embassy realize the dangerous situation outside they flee, only after all the Iranian applicants have left. The Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) gives refuge the six Americans. Their location must be kept secret because of the danger they and their host face. They all risk death. 

Affleck plays CIA employee Tony Mendez who gets “the best bad idea” to get the hiding Americans out of Iran, inspired by watching a “Planet of the Apes” film on TV. He devises a plan to give the Embassy workers identities as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a science fiction film called “Argo”. With assistance from a makeup expert (John Goodman) with whom the CIA had worked and a producer (Alan Arkin), the CIA funds the operation of a film company preparing production, including trade paper ads and a press conference. Everything has to be convincing. Arkin and Goodman are quite amusing as their characters construct the elaborate front. Mendez plans to enter Iran “legally” to rescue the Americans.

“Argo” builds a vivid atmosphere of the hysteria and destruction engulfing Iran. A hanging occurs on a crowded street. There is a keen eye for detail. The cast is impressive.         

Affleck skillfully mixes in tension from different locations – at the ambassador’s residence, the bureaucracy at CIA headquarters, at the Hollywood production office, and throughout Tehran.

A servant may realize the identity of the “guests” of the Canadian ambassador. Iranian children piece together shredded papers from the US Embassy that include photos of the missing employees. 

The film had a strong audience response including applause after the gripping climax.

Ben Affleck at Telluride outdoor panel with Israeli director Dror Moreh (l) and moderator Annette Insdorf

Affleck appeared in an outdoor panel with international directors of films with subjects that included a Mideast suicide bomber, Israel’s internal security organization, and Indonesian death squads recreating their violent past. He said “I’m deeply, fantastically humble to be up here with these directors, not because I make movies in Hollywood, because I think Hollywood has made some very fine movies, but because I am among artists of extraordinary vision and powerful work. I believe these are people if their work was seen widely would frankly, genuinely change the way people in the United States see the world. It is an honor to be among you, so thank you for including me.

“These guys making these really heavy, powerful movies and I have like Alan Arkin telling jokes in my movie. What it is, is a piece of entertainment, but what I wanted to do with that was to shroud inside the thrilling stuff, inside the funny stuff, the compelling stuff and the human stuff, some of these themes that you are talking about, one of which is the unintended consequences of revolution. 

“Early on in the movie we see  the first Islamic Revolution in Iran and there’s a prelude to the US and Britain engineering the overthrow of Mosaddeq, the democratically elected guy, and installing the Shah who was oppressive  and ultimately bringing about this counterrevolution on the part of Khomeini and the mullahs…And hopefully it raises questions about why we continue to let this happen when we engineer revolutions and the sort of capricious way we ascribe democracy to one, tyranny to another. 

“And of course it’s applicable to the Arab spring, to Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt. The goal for me is sort of like acting. If it’s presentational…if you’re selling the audience something with your acting, they feel sold too. If you just sort of present it as something factual, hopefully it kind of lands, and you pick this stuff up without noticing quite so much.”

He later added “I think the interesting thing about the character (he portrays) was that he was aware of how the policies of the CIA had put them in the place they were in but still wanted in some measure to try to make it right. This idea of not giving up I think is noble.

Ben Affleck at Telluride outdoor panel with Israeli director Dror Moreh (l) and moderator Annette Insdorf

“I also caution the other members of this panel to keep in mind to ward off your cynicism and remember that those of us in America get our education from movies. We know about Adams because we saw Paul Giamatti with his hat on marching around on HBO. We know about Lincoln because we see Daniel Day-Lewis in the Spielberg movie and that’s going to inform a lot of people’s opinions. We know Harry Potter can fly because we saw him do it.

“There really is a great deal of information that gets passed to the audience and that we tend to get quite trusting and take for granted that what we’re being presented has somehow been vetted, and must in fact be true. That what I mean when I say that if people see these films, they will believe them and I believe that some of them will be jarring. And I genuinely believe, no know, that there will be an impact.”

Coming post: Bill Murray as FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson”


Telluride 2012

Telluride is a small former mining town in southwest Colorado where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank. Every Labor Day week-end it becomes crowded with film enthusiasts. With picturesque mountain scenery and an informal atmosphere, the Film Festival hosts major US and world premieres of major upcoming films.   

Besides the local movie theater and a restored opera house, buildings like a high school and Mason’s Hall are reconfigured with top-flight projection equipment. Part of the library becomes a small screening room showing documentaries on filmmaking. There are now eight venues plus nightly outdoor screenings. 

Telluride is known for very enjoyable conversations among film aficionados waiting in line for the next screening.  A unique aspect is that passholders stand in the line with Festival guests, leading to some informal discussions with international filmmakers on the films they’ve brought to Telluride. (Patrons have a separate line for first access.) I was once in line in front of Helen Mirren and Taylor Hackford.    

Ever since Jeanne Moreau cancelled her appearance at an early Festival, the schedule is not announced in advance, adding a keen sense of anticipation. With a time-frame shorter than most film festivals, the schedule has a selective quality. It’s an intense experience where it’s impossible to see everything.

Banners of previous Telluride tributees

This year, Marion Cotillard (Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose”), Danish Actor Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in “Casino Royale”) and producer/director/distributor Roger Corman received tributes. 

In Telluride with new films were Ben Affleck, Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Dennis Quaid, Ray Liotta, Gael Garcia Bernal, Salman Rushdie, and Sarah Polley.

Dennis Quaid and Ray Liotta at outdoor seminar


MORE TO COME in future posts.