In this video I do a deep dive into Ben Affleck, his Oscar-winning film Argo, how the CIA supported and promoted the movie and how it twists the true history and present day relationship between Iran and the United States. Using documents obtained by Matt Alford, and a whole load of behind-the-scenes interviews and clips from the cast and crew of Argo, I detail how it is a love letter to the CIA, and to US foreign policy in Iran.
This article was originally published by Spy Culture.
- Ben Affleck admitting to working for the CIA
- A brief history of films and TV shows that have shot at CIA headquarters
- Ben Affleck’s history with the CIA, including his work on The Sum of All Fears, his relationship with Chase Brandon and his ex-wife Jennifer Garner’s CIA connections
- The CIA’s Argo documents, both on the film version and the real operation
- How Argo butchers the real story, and makes America look like the heroes while demonising Iranians
- The success of the film, commercially, critically and as a piece of propaganda
In 2012, Ben Affleck was on the promotional circuit for his new film Argo. The movie tells the story of 6 US embassy officials who were trapped in Tehran following the 1979 Iranian revolution, and how the CIA pretended they were a film crew, in order to smuggle them out of the country.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to questions about the CIA-Hollywood relationship.
At the time, Affleck’s comments were widely taken to be a joke, but in the years since, an increasing pile of evidence suggests that what he said was true.
Two years later, former CIA chief counsel John Rizzo published his memoir, Company Man. In the book he characterised the CIA-Hollywood connection very strongly, writing:
The CIA has long had a special relationship with the entertainment industry, devoting considerable attention to fostering relationships with Hollywood movers and shakers—studio executives, producers, directors, big-name actors.
The following year, the second edition of Tricia Jenkins’ book The CIA in Hollywood was published. In it, she revealed that the CIA’s own entertainment industry liaison, Chase Brandon, had ghost-written the Al Pacino thriller The Recruit.
In the film’s credits, Brandon is identified only as a technical advisor, covering up his true role in manufacturing a Hollywood movie. How often has this happened? Brandon worked on over a dozen major film and TV productions during his time as the Agency’s Hollywood liaison, he but isn’t even credited on most of them.
When it came to Argo, you can tell from watching the movie that they were allowed access to film at the CIA’s Langley headquarters. Also, in many of his promotional interviews, Affleck was shadowed by former CIA officer Tony Mendez, who ran the Tehran exfiltration, and worked as a consultant on the film.
And that is where the story stayed, until years later when the CIA finally responded to an 8 year old Freedom of Information request. They released over 200 pages of documents on Argo, Affleck and the filming at Langley.
But, before we get into all that.
A Brief History of Filming at CIA Headquarters
The first movie to be allowed access to the Langley campus was “Scorpio”, from 1973 – a violent, moody thriller that did very little for the CIA’s desire for more positive public relations. It featured the agency trying to kill one of their own simply for wanting to retire from his life as a CIA spy and assassin.
When word of the filming leaked, director Michael Winner protested, telling a London newspaper, “We only show the CIA killing nasty agents. Young people in America think the CIA should not exist, but that is naive.” Winner described CIA officers as “terribly charming and cheerful and gentlemanly at all times.”
In “Scorpio,” John Colicos is shown driving through the security barriers, up to the CIA headquarters building, walking through the lobby doors and over the CIA seal on the floor of the lobby. This money shot sequence was replicated in future agency-supported productions, including by Harrison Ford in “Patriot Games” and Ben Affleck in “Argo.”
More recently, when the FBI’s counterintelligence division hired Rocket Media to produce the educational drama “Game of Pawns” about the case of Glenn Duffie Shriver, an American student recruited by Chinese intelligence who tried to join the CIA, the company was granted access to Langley. Joshua Murray walked the same steps taken by Affleck and Ford, as well as by the real Shriver.
Other productions, including the first “Mission: Impossible” film, the Nicholas Cage torture thriller “Dying of the Light,” and the reality show Top Chef were also granted permission to film at the headquarters of America’s top spy agency.
But in 2015 the CIA suspended access.
Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s request to film at Langley for “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” was turned down, because, as they revealed on the DVD commentary, “You’re not allowed to film the CIA any more.”
Likewise, CIA documents show how Michael Bay’s request to shoot the memorial wall in the headquarters’ lobby for his Benghazi movie “13 Hours” was also rejected, as the CIA were only engaging with Bay “for the sole purpose of keeping sensitive and unapproved material from the book out of the film.”
This apparent ban on filming at Langley was lifted in 2018 when Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” came calling, and John Krasinski took the same journey as Ford, Affleck, and the others. The most recent production to be granted this rare access was – I’m not kidding – Pawn Stars.
Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and the CIA
To understand Affleck’s relationship with the CIA, we have to go back to 2002, when he played Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears. The movie was supported by both the CIA and the DOD.
Chase Brandon arranged for Affleck to make multiple visits to CIA headquarters.
One of the things, I think, that benefited Ben as he walked around the agency was to simply feel the atmosphere of the place. There’s a very palpable sense of mission and importance to what goes on there, and I think Ben picked up on that simply by being in the building.
Likewise, Brandon also worked with Affleck’s ex-wife Jennifer Garner, who starred in the CIA-supported series Alias. Garner also appeared in a CIA recruitment ad after having been recruited for the role by Brandon.
The CIA’s Argo Documents
In March 2011, the CIA arranged a tour for Affleck and Mendez of the Old Naval Observatory, the former headquarters of the CIA, and the location of the Agency’s Office of Technical Services, where Mendez worked at the time of the Argo operation.
Following this tour, the pair attended a roundtable discussion session in the Director’s Conference Room at Langley, where the film-makers received input from CIA officials.
During this visit Affleck saw the CIA museum, and in an email, he thanked the Agency for their hospitality, signing off, “I look forward to returning to headquarters again soon, and I hope very much to see you then.”
Over the following weeks, Affleck, production designer Sharon Seymour, executive producer Chris Brigham, and location manager Peggy Pridemore made further trips to CIA headquarters.
In June, Affleck formally asked permission to film on the Langley campus, and in one email he exhorted, “We love the agency and this heroic action and we really want the process of bringing it to the big screen to be as real as possible.”
One public affairs officer wrote back to assure Affleck “We’re trying,” and told Brigham, “I’m optimistic, and hope we’ll be working together.”
To secure permission to access Langley, the producers showed drafts of the script to the CIA, who did multiple reviews before giving the go-ahead. One internal email from the deputy director for public affairs told the bosses, “This is a good news CIA story, with real life CIA good guys.”
Another internal email by an entertainment liaison officer who reviewed the script said it “looks good,” elaborating, “The agency comes off looking very well, in my opinion, and the action of the movie is, for the most part, squarely rooted in the facts of the mission.”
When approval was eventually granted the deputy director for public affairs let the film-makers know, and Affleck shot back, “This is great!!! Thank you so much!! I am thrilled. Please let me know whatever I can do. This is a thrill. We will do the agency proud I promise you.”
In the run-up to the filming in November the crew returned to Langley multiple times, and Bryan Cranston was provided a walk-around in October.
Ahead of the weekend shoot in November, all of the film crew and their equipment was vetted by the CIA, and the Office of Public Affairs sent an email out for volunteers to act as minders, saying, “You’ll get to watch the filming happen, see the movie stars (including Ben Affleck), and eat free food from their catering operation. What better way to spend a Saturday?”
How Argo Butchers History
Affleck has repeatedly emphasized how his film tells a true story, and how accuracy was important to him.
However, his film took major deviations from history, both to downplay the role of the Canadian government in the rescue operation, and to demonize Iranians. After the film came out, former US president Jimmy Carter, and Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (who housed and protected the 6 in Tehran), criticized Argo for its misrepresentations.
Affleck also claimed that Argo is apolitical, and that he wasn’t seeking to vilify the Iranian people.
But, throughout its two hour run, Argo depicts Iranians as constantly hostile and a violent threat to the safety of Americans. Any notion that Iran’s citizens have legitimate grievances is pushed aside in favour of lengthy sequences of Iranians shouting aggressively, throwing Molotov cocktails and burning American flags. According to Argo, the threat to Americans is not just the Revolutionary Guard, or even the new Iranian government as a whole, but every single person in Iran.
By depicting Iranians as irrationally angry and violent, and framing the story around everyone in Iran posing a threat to our small band of Americans, the film emotionally reverses what actually happened. In reality, America was and is the much larger power and poses a far greater threat to Iran than vice versa, but in the world of Argo, the conflict and danger originates from Iran, and from Iranians.
Three sequences stand out: one where the “film crew” go on a fake location scout in a Tehran marketplace and are hassled, threatened, and even attacked by miscellaneous Iranian citizens; the lengthy interrogation of the group by Revolutionary Guardsmen at the airport; and the ending of the film, which sees the Revolutionary Guard chasing the plane carrying Mendez and the “film crew” down the runway in a reckless attempt to stop them fleeing the country.
None of these events actually happened.
The CIA’s internal history of the operation records how the group’s passage through the airport was as “smooth as silk.” Mendez described how easy it was, saying, “I was armed with the Argo portfolio and would overwhelm anyone standing in the way with Hollywood talk. The Iranian official at the checkpoint could not have cared less.”
The CIA — who knew how far the script deviated from reality — had no problem with any of this. An email reviewing the script says, “There is some fiction thrown in toward the end for dramatic effect, but nothing too ridiculous.”
Making the Agency Proud
In the final analysis, Argo is a love letter to the CIA, and to US foreign policy against Iran, and in return the CIA and the State Department gave the film their full support.
This unusually close relationship resulted in a runaway critical and commercial success, culminating in then first lady Michelle Obama awarding Argo the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie provided a welcome PR boon for the CIA, at a time when they were being hammered for their torture program. Perhaps ironically, one of the movies Argo beat at the Oscars, Zero Dark Thirty, was also supported by the CIA, and propagated the false story that torture led to the Abbottabad raid, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
The Agency were so appreciative of what Affleck had done for them that when they joined Twitter a couple of years later, they used their account to thank him.
But it isn’t just the CIA’s opinion that the movie had a major positive influence on their public image. The same year, an academic study found that that opinions of government agencies, levels of trust in the government and faith in the general direction of the country all improved after watching Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.
In particular, 34% of people who saw Argo ‘recorded an improvement in their assessment of the CIA’.
Agent Affleck’s promise to “do the agency proud” had paid off.