By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Ben Affleck appeared sheepish for a change, the lone American and only household name on a Telluride Film Festival panel of directors depicting political history on screen.
Much of the open-air discussion amid Colorado mountains focused on terrorism, genocide, Holocaust memories. Then there was Affleck, wincing when the moderator mentioned Pearl Harbor in his introduction. Affleck was "deeply, fantastically humbled" that a crowd pleaser like Argo earned him a place alongside such committed filmmakers.
"These guys make these really heavy, powerful movies," Affleck said. "I have Alan Arkin telling jokes in my movie."
Argo, based on the true story of a bold 1980 rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran, will likely sell more tickets in one day than the other five directors' movies will combined. Affleck did his best to convince the audience — and maybe himself — that he belonged.
"My movie is really just a piece of entertainment," he conceded, "but what I really wanted to do was to shroud inside that — inside the funny stuff, inside the thriller stuff — some themes, like the unintended consequences of revolution."
Argo begins with an animated primer on U.S.-Iran politics before 1980, including CIA efforts to overthrow a democratically elected leader and install a despot. The Shah of Iran's actions sparked a counterrevolution leading to the capture of 52 U.S. Embassy workers, with a half-dozen escaping. Their rescue is the basis for a crackerjack thriller, but that's not all Affleck wants his movie to be.
"Hopefully it raises questions about why we continue to get into the business of getting into business with people," Affleck said, "and how it is that we predict what's going to happen when we organize these group revolutions. This sort of capricious way we tend to ascribe democracy to one and tyranny to another. Of course it's applicable to the Arab Spring, to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt."
In Argo, Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, whose ambivalence about U.S. actions sparking the hostage crisis complicates the mission.
"The interesting thing about this character was that he was aware of how policies of the CIA had put them in the place they were in," Affleck said. "He still wanted in some measure to try and make it right. This idea of not giving up is noble."
Later, Affleck directed that idea to the other filmmakers, after hearing them speak passionately about their projects and dismally about their prospects of reaching audiences.
"I also would caution the other members of this panel to keep in mind to ward off your cynicism," Affleck said. "There are those of us in America who get our education from movies.
"We know about (John) Adams because we saw Paul Giamatti with his hat on, marching around on HBO. We learn about Lincoln because we see Daniel Day-Lewis in a Spielberg movie, and that's going to form a lot of people's opinions.
"There really is a great deal of information that gets passed to the audience, and we tend to actually be quite trusting. We take for granted that what we're watching must have been somehow vetted. It must, in fact, be true. When people see these films they will believe them."
Big applause from an audience won over by Affleck's candor and humility. He belonged, although the notion was mocked by a wiseguy in the crowd.
"It's an honor to speak to such an esteemed panel," said the man at the Q&A microphone, "and also to you, Ben."
Affleck shrugged, smiled and politely responded: "Have a wonderful night."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.