Until he got the script for Argo, Ben Affleck had never heard the true story about the six Americans who escaped Iran in 1979 under the CIA cover of making a Hollywood movie.
''I thought, 'This is insane, it can't be true,''' the actor-director says, dressed in a smart grey suit the morning after the film's wildly successful premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
''Then I went on the internet and looked it up and found out it really happened so I called up and said, 'I want to make this movie.'''
Affleck's third directorial effort chronicles what happened behind the scenes after militants stormed the US embassy and took 52 Americans hostage in 1979. Six other workers slipped away and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador but the government knew it was only a matter of time before they were found and killed. Then CIA ''exfiltration'' specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) came up with a crazy plan to get them out of the country: fabricate an entire Hollywood movie called Argo with the assistance of a real producer (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist (John Goodman), and give them new identities as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations to get them out of the country. Unlike the two previous films Affleck directed - his well-received 2007 directorial debut Gone Baby Gone and the critically acclaimed 2010 follow-up The Town - this was not set in his home town of Boston.
''There is the CIA 'All the President's Men' tone at the beginning,'' Affleck says. ''And then there is the Hollywood satire thing in the middle and then there's the grittier, punchier, grainier stuff for Iran. So my challenge was to try and navigate those tones so that it didn't feel like three short films but was one cohesive movie.''
The confident filmmaker put together a veteran cast including Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Goodman (Roseanne). Arkin, 78, was impressed.
''Ben has incredible trust in himself and greater subtlety than almost any director I've ever worked with,'' he says.
Cranston says: ''His attention to detail was amazing. Ben is all about the nuance and restraint, which are the signs of a great director. I think he's going to be the next Clint Eastwood.''
When the actor hears such praise, he looks embarrassed.
''Clint Eastwood is an extraordinary director and an incredible, iconic American actor who did The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang 'Em High, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Dirty Harry, and then moved into a more serious phase with films like Gran Torino, J. Edgar, Invictus, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River,'' he says with reverence. ''He's also shown the virtues of being such a ruthless storyteller and just sticking point to point to what the story is and telling it that way, so he's been a huge inspiration to me.''
The savvy star, who majored in Middle Eastern studies before dropping out of college, is politically active and campaigns for Obama, but, like his friend and Argo producer George Clooney, Affleck has no plans to run for office himself. ''Jack Kennedy has a quote where he says, 'Every mother wants her son to be President, but they don't want him to be a politician,''' he chuckles. ''I'm guilty of taking part in helping to raise money and support candidates but I think I'd be poorly suited to it myself.''
Affleck was only 26 when he and Matt Damon won Oscars for writing the screenplay of their breakthrough film Good Will Hunting. He did the prerequisite blockbusters (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), a superhero movie (Daredevil) and some
well-received indie films (Chasing Amy, Hollywoodland) before reinventing himself as a critically acclaimed director.
Married to Daredevil co-star Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three young children, he seems remarkably grounded.
He recently celebrated his 40th birthday and admits his mixed reactions to the milestone.
''I finally feel, for better or worse, a grown-up,'' he says. ''I ran into Morgan Freeman somewhere and said, 'Shit, Morgan, I'm turning 40,' and he said, 'Boy, you're just coming into your prime.'
''I thought maybe it's bullshit but I feel like if Morgan said it, it's probably true.''
GENRE Suspense drama.
BUZZ There's talk of many Oscar nominations and big box-office takings.
STARS Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman.
DIRECTOR Ben Affleck.
RELEASE October 25.