In late 2012 Ben Affleck was on the promotional circuit for Argo. Naturally, this led to questions about the CIA-Hollywood connection and, in one interview, Affleck commented “Probably Hollywood is full of CIA agents, and we just don’t know it.” When he was asked if he was working for the CIA Affleck replied, “I am, yes, and now you’ve blown my cover.”
2001: Affleck’s first contact with the Agency
At the time these comments were widely interpreted as a joke, a flip response to an absurd question. But behind the scenes, Argo was supported by the CIA and Affleck had previously worked closely with the Agency when he played Jack Ryan in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears.
According to production notes for the nuclear terrorist spy thriller, then CIA-Hollywood liaison Chase Brandon arranged for Affleck to make multiple visits to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Brandon observed, “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, Affleck’s ex-wife Jennifer Garner starred in the CIA-supported series Alias, and appeared in a CIA recruitment ad after having been recruited herself for the role by Brandon.
The eight-year Argo FOIA process
Details about how the Agency worked with the Argo film makers, and Affleck in particular, were scant, despite the film being a major topic for commentators and water-cooler conversations, and the film proving a massive commercial and critical success and winning multiple Oscars.
Scant, that is, until now.
In response to an eight-year-old FOIA request by British academic Matthew Alford, the CIA recently released over 200 pages of documents that shed new light on the “close working relationship” between the Agency and the makers of Argo, especially Affleck, the film’s director and star.
Alford, my co-author on National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood, commented “I was very confused when the documents came through the door. I had totally forgotten that I’d put in a request for CIA correspondence on Argo. That’s because I did it in 2012.” He added, “I really don’t think they like releasing material on this, at least not to us.”
For some time the CIA had wanted someone to make a movie about the Argo operation, and even promoted it as a suggested movie plot on their Entertainment Industry Liaison page in 2007.
Though George Clooney and Grant Heslov had the movie in development for several years, it wasn’t until Warner Brothers invited Affleck to join the party that the project really took off. He worked closely with Tony Mendez, the former CIA officer who Affleck played in the film and the man behind the idea to disguise the embassy staff as a Hollywood movie crew, and it was through Mendez that Affleck reconnected with the Agency.
2011: Affleck rejoins the CIA
As the CIA documents reveal, in March 2011 Affleck and Mendez went on a tour of the Old Naval Observatory, the former headquarters of the CIA as well as their predecessor the OSS, and the base for the Agency’s Office of Technical Services where Mendez worked at the time of the Argo operation.
The tour was arranged by the US State Department and the CIA, and was followed by a visit to Langley, Virginia, for a roundtable in the Director’s Conference Room where Affleck discussed the project with CIA officials. An internal email outlines how the CIA were “hoping to develop a close working relationship with the film makers on this project.”
During this visit to Langley, Affleck looked around the CIA museum and asked for copies of historical photographs in their archives, which were released after a lengthy clearance process. In an email he thanked the Agency for their help, saying “I am extremely grateful and hope very much to tell a story that does Tony and the Agency justice.” Affleck’s email finished, “I look forward to returning to headquarters again soon.”