Page to Screen: Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Cover image for Argo by Antonio MendezMemoir by Antonio J. Mendez

Directed by Ben Affleck

ISBN 978-1-101-60120-4

The trick is that you have to believe the lie and believe it so much that the lie becomes the truth.

In 1979, the American-backed Shah of Iran was deposed, and after some turmoil, was replaced by the cleric Ayatollah Khomeini at the head of a new Islamic republic. The Shah fled the country in January, and in October was admitted into the United States seeking medical treatment for cancer. On November 4, 1979, protestors stormed the American Embassy in Tehran amidst demands for the Shah to be returned to Iran for trial. Fifty-two members of the embassy staff hostage were taken hostage. In the chaos of the occupation of the embassy, some of the staff were able to escape, and six of the Americans eventually took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and the home of Canadian senior immigration officer John Sheardown. As the hostage crisis dragged out, the Canadian government, Ambassador Taylor, Hollywood costume designer John Chambers, and the CIA collaborated on a secret operation to exfiltrate the six houseguests right under the nose of the Iranian government. The unusually flamboyant cover story disguised the houseguests as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a fake science fiction film dubbed Argo, in order to put them on a commercial flight out of the country.

Challenge Badge for the 2014 Book to Movie ChallengeAfter the plan was assembled, the exfiltration operation was undertaken by CIA operative Tony Mendez, who went into Iran to assess the houseguests, and coach them on their cover stories before taking them out of the country. On the fiftieth anniversary of the CIA in 1997, the Argo story was declassified, and Mendez was asked to break his silence about the operation as a celebration of the accomplishments of the agency. His 2012 memoir was released in conjunction with Ben Affleck’s dramatization of the events often referred to as the Canadian Caper. Prior to the declassification, the CIA denied any involvement in extracting the diplomats due to the ongoing hostage crisis, and subsequent difficult relations with the Iranian government. The amount of credit given to the various parties who helped the American diplomats escape has been a matter of controversy since the release of the film, and the subtitle of Mendez’ memoir certainly adds to that perception. Of course, at the time of the events, Canada received all of the credit, so perhaps a little overbalancing in the other direction is not so terrible. When Mendez received the Intelligence Star for his work on the operation, he couldn’t tell anyone about it, and his family was not allowed to attend the ceremony, after which the award went right back into the CIA vaults.

Mendez’ memoir is a straightforward narration, undramatic but filled with interesting details about the real art of spycraft. There are plenty of tense and dramatic events being related, but Mendez doesn’t really make you feel them; he takes you through them calmly and analytically, like the professional that he is. The book begins well before the extraction of the houseguests, providing much-needed context about the Iranian revolution, which the film skims over in a quick montage in order to get to the meat of the story. In the book, it is not until chapter eight that Mendez digs into the cover story, which is where Argo the film begins. The memoir also establishes Mendez’s history and credentials in a way that is almost entirely neglected by the film, which prefers to depict Mendez as a bit down on his luck, separated from his wife and not particularly well-respected at work. The fictional Mendez is redeemed by the successful mission, but I found the reality of a married man with three teenage children and a painting hobby to be more interesting than the typical narrative of a strife at home caused by too much time on the job.

The fundamental difference between Mendez’s memoir and Affleck’s film is that the memoir is informational, while the film stretches the truth in its quest to tell a more streamlined and dramatic story. Some of the choices simplify the story with little impact on the truth; Argo depicts all six houseguests staying together in one location, when in fact they first tried a few different houses owned by American diplomats, and were eventually split between the homes of Ken Taylor and John Sheardown. Affleck’s film adaptation takes an event with plenty of inherent drama, and adds tension through details and events that never took place. For example, there was no in-character visit to the Grand Bazaar, and no need to whip out the storyboards at the airport to convince suspicious Revolutionary Guards to let them go on their way. There were certainly no militants in jeeps dramatically chasing the plane down the runway, which is the crowning piece of the film’s heart-pounding finale. Luckily, in the film, it is only a matter of minutes—rather than a factual matter of hours—before the plane crosses into Turkish airspace, beyond the jurisdiction of the Iranian government.  On the flipside, the film forgoes using events that actually did happen, such as the fact that the Swissair flight on which the houseguests escaped was delayed for an hour due to mechanical issues. Ultimately, Affleck’s film is more escape thriller than political drama, and the facts have been tinkered with accordingly.

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Further Reading:

Slate breakdown of fact vs. fiction in Argo

Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor sets the record straight

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8 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

  1. Great review! I really enjoyed this movie, so I’d love to go back and read the book too. Even if it’s less dramatic, it sounds as though the reality of what happened could be equally fascinating in its own way.

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