Director Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” a real movie about a fake movie, is based on an astounding true story.
One of the film’s stars, Bryan Cranston (of AMC’s highly addictive “Breaking Bad”), and screenwriter Chris Terrio, recently in the Bay Area, explain: During the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, six Americans escaped the American Embassy and found refuge in the home of a Canadian official.
The CIA came up with several ridiculous plans to get them out of the country, but perhaps the most ridiculous was to disguise the refugees as a film crew traveling through the Middle East looking for locations for a “Star Wars”-like sci-fi film.
Real-life CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck in “Argo”) was in charge. The ruse involved recruiting Hollywood talent like makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman).
The trouble, according to Terrio, was how to write silly, satirical Hollywood scenes and tense, suspenseful CIA scenes, and make them seem like the same movie.
“They’re very distinct worlds, but they’re worlds in which people are making up stories for a living,” says Terrio, who based his script on the book “The Master of Disguise” by Mendez and a Wired magazine article titled “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.
He adds, “They’re creating stories around people, and characters and even props. So once I started thinking about that, it became easier to wrangle these worlds into one.”
It helped when Terrio realized the “causality” of the story, such as: “a butterfly flaps its wings in D.C. and there’s a hurricane in Tehran, or a typhoon in Burbank.”
Cranston, who plays CIA manager Jack O’Donnell, concerned himself with one part of the story.
Shooting for two days in CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., he spoke to real CIA agents to find out what it would be like to work on a top-secret operation like the one in “Argo.”
“It’s inward,” he says. “Everything’s kept tight. They don’t show emotion. They have to think their way out of situations. I didn’t want Jack to be an emotional guy.”
With that in mind, he conjured a subtle and moving emotional arc for the character.
Regardless, Cranston — who appeared in seven other films in 2012 — is proud to be involved with a movie as good as “Argo.”
He says, “In the sense that, when we rise above and get out of ourselves and do something selfless — look what human beings are capable of!”