According to CIA man Antonio J. Mendez, the plot to smuggle six American diplomats from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis – as depicted in the film Argo – went as “smooth as silk”. On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy. The six diplomats literally slipped out the back door, and went into hiding with Canadian embassy officials. But leaving Tehran wasn’t as simple. The plan to get them out was a joint Canadian-CIA operation known as the ‘Canadian Caper’.
Mendez concocted a cover story: the diplomats would pose as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations. Mendez even set up a fake movie studio, to fake produce a real script – a sci-fi epic called ‘Argo’ – and placed ads in Hollywood trade magazines. Armed with a cover story and Canadian passports, the diplomats sauntered through Mehrabad Airport and boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich. Smooth as silk.
Retold in Ben Affleck’s 2012 Oscar-winning film, their exit through the airport is transformed into a pulse-pounding race against the clock. Led by Mendez – played by Affleck himself – the Americans are held by revolutionary gun-toting guards, while a ringing phone ratchets the tension up to Hitchcockian levels.
There’s an amusing irony to it. Argo is both a taut espionage thriller and colourful satire on the façade and bluster of Hollywood. But this supposedly true story about a fake movie does what all fake movies about supposedly true stories do: it fakes it. Whatever you think about Hollywood tinkering with history, those final moments of Argo feel like fair game. It’s a rollicking exercise in cinematic suspense.
But critics would say that Argo is more problematic than crafty dramatic licence. It’s a film about the ‘the Canadian Caper’, yet it largely erases the Canadian role. “Virtually every good idea that contributed to the success of the rescue came from Canada,” wrote Juan Cole, history professor at University of Michigan and Middle East commentator. “But somehow American movie audiences insist that it all has to be about us.”
Argo was undoubtedly endorsed as a tribute to American heroics. First Lady Michelle Obama, live from the White House, announced Argo as the winner of Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards. Among the film’s critics is former Iranian President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. In a rebuttal to Argo’s Oscar success, Bani-Sadr wrote: “By falsifying, misrepresenting, and taking critical facts out of context, it delivers a pro-CIA message at the cost of both the Iranian people and Iranian history.”
Written by Chris Terrio, Argo is based on a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman and Antonio Mendez’s memoir, The Master of Disguise. The film begins with a frank (and disarmingly balanced) prologue on the background to Iranian hostage crisis. It details how in 1953 the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown by a US and British orchestrated coup, putting Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution ended 2,500 years of monarchy rule in Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader. The Shah, dying of cancer, was taken in by the US. On November 4, revolutionary students stormed the US embassy complex – initially a protest against the Shah’s admittance in the US. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage in the embassy for 444 days. Argo’s restaging of the assault on the embassy is masterfully done. Regardless of numerous narrative liberties, the film’s production is detailed and authentic.
Five embassy personnel escaped with a number of Iranian nationals from the consulate building, the only building in the 27-acre compound with a door that exited onto the street. They were Robert Anders, Joseph and Kathleen Stafford, and Mark and Cora Lijeks. A sixth man, an agriculture attache named Henry Lee Schatz, had been in a building across the street, and later joined them. The film simplifies the story by placing all six altogether.
Argo also simplifies the context of Iran’s response to the embassy occupation. Back in the White House, one Washington pen-pusher announces that “Bani-Sadr is saying it’ll be over in 24 hours.” The real Bani-Sadr was elected as Iran’s first president in February 1980. He did believe the crisis would be over quickly, but the framing of the quote suggested the Iranian government supported the occupation and he was the lone voice against it. “This could not be further from the truth,” he wrote.
The administration of Mehdi Bazargan – appointed as prime minister in the wake of the revolution – was against the occupation, and Bazargan resigned in protest. When Bani-Sadr was elected, the Iranian people echoed his stance on the hostage situation. He wrote: “I won the election with over 76 percent of the vote… [and] 96 percent of votes in that election were given to candidates who were against it.” But almost all Iranians in Argo are baying for American blood. “Iranian characters are depicted as full of mindless rage,” wrote Juan Cole.
When Affleck’s version of Mendez enters the situation, the hostages and diplomats have been respectively held and hidden for 69 days. Bryan Cranston, an intelligence boss with a slick Seventies hairdo, informs Mendez the diplomats are in hiding with the Canadian ambassador. “Brits turned them away, Kiwis turned them away,” says Cranston’s character.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph in 2012, Robert Anders denied this. “That is absolutely incorrect, absolutely untrue,” he said. “They made us very comfortable, the British were very helpful and they helped to move us around to different places after that too. If the Iranians were going to start looking for people, they would probably look to the British. So it was too risky to stay and we moved on. They put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk. I hope no one in Britain will be offended by what’s said in the film. The British were good to us and we’re forever grateful.”
Sir John Graham was Britain’s ambassador to Iran at the time. “My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage,” he said about Argo. “I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the filmmakers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979.”
Also missing from the film is the fact that Lee Schatz had first gone to the Swedish embassy. “The Swedish flag was his blanket,” wrote Antonio Mendez.
In the film, the six diplomats hide out in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber, who’s portrayed as kindly but ineffective. The real Ken Taylor was a celebrated Canadian hero. He spied for the US throughout the hostage crisis, at the request of president Jimmy Carter, and approval of Canadian prime minister Joe Clark.
Another Canadian embassy official, John Sheardown, is snubbed entirely. In reality, two of the diplomats had stayed with Taylor, and four with Sheardown. According to a report in Toronto’s Beach Metro news, Sheardown was a tail gunner in the Second World War who “broke both his legs bailing out of a crippled RCAF Halifax bomber over Britain, crawled to a pub and asked for a drink.” The Canadians were far from ineffective. As detailed by Beach Metro, they “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets, even coached [the diplomats] in sounding authentically Canadian.”
The film also claims that the Canadian embassy is ready to shut up shop because of the risk. “It’s inconceivable that Canada would have closed the embassy while US diplomats were still there,” said Taylor in 2012. “It wouldn’t even have occurred to us.”
It was Ken Taylor who cabled Washington to set an escape plan in motion. He even had a plan of his own, to smuggle them out among other Canadians leaving the country. “I was cutting back the staff,” Taylor recalled. “[The Americans] would just be Canadians going through, some on business, some going back after temporarily serving at the embassy.”
At the time, Antonio Mendez had moved from chief of the Office of Technical Service’s Disguise section to chief of the CIA’s Authentication section. “I had operational responsibility worldwide for disguise, false documentation, and forensic monitoring of questioned documents for counterterrorism or counterintelligence purposes,” he wrote.
His movie counterpart juggles the tricky business of rescuing the diplomats and reconciling with his estranged family (another Hollywood fabrication). It also plays down the more fantastical Mission: Impossible-style antics from Mendez’s work. As detailed in Joshuah Bearman’s original Wired article, Mendez “once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen – using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison,” and “spent a whirlwind 90 hours straight working on a plan called Operation Bodyguard in which a dead body double for the Shah would be used to arrange for the hostages’ release.”
In the movie, Mendez is inspired to create the sci-fi movie cover story by seeing Planet of the Apes on the television. Indeed, Mendez really did collaborate on the plan with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, played by lookalike John Goodman, who. received an honourary Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes. Chambers had worked with Mendez on previous operations. “His motivation for helping us was purely patriotic,” wrote Mendez.
The fake movie is also largely true. Mendez and Chambers set up ‘Studio Six Productions’ with a bag filled with $10,000 of CIA cash. They set up an office on the Columbia lot, recently occupied by Michael Douglas, and took out full page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Mendez created bogus backstories and film credits for the diplomats, and even got them business cards made. But he needed a script too. “We needed a script with ‘sci-fi’, Middle Eastern, and mythological elements,” said Mendez. “Something about the glory of Islam would be nice, too.”
The script they chose was called Lord of Light, written by Barry Ira Geller and based on the best-selling sci-fi novel by Roger Zelazny. Geller envisioned the project as part of a theme part called Science Fiction Land, and commissioned concept drawings for the film by Jack Kirby, comic book artist and co-creator of Captain America, the X-Men, and The Hulk. (In the film, Mendez takes storyboards with him to Tehran, which are later used to talk round some revolutionary guards. In real life, Mendez took a copy of the script as a prop.) Affleck couldn’t use Lord of Light because they didn’t have the rights – so had to create a cover story for the fake movie. It’s reimagined in the movie as a Star Wars rip-off.
They really did call the script Argo, based on a knock-knock joke from Mendez’s time in the Disguise division. (“Who’s there?” “Argo.” “Argo who?” “Argo f––– yourself.”) Disappointingly, Alan Arkin’s producer, Lester Siegel – the film’s sharpest character – is fictional, but the real Chambers brought in fellow make-up man Robert Sidell, who later worked on ET. When the industry got word that two make artists were turning to producing a science fiction epic, it gave the cover story added credibility.
It might seem implausible that anyone would be scouting locations in revolution-era Iran, but the Iranian government was trying to procure foreign business. “A motion picture production on Iranian soil could be an economic shot in the arm and would provide an ideal public relations tool to help counteract the adverse publicity stemming from the hostage situation,” wrote Mendez.
Mendez went to Tehran with a partner (omitted from the film) but didn’t – as Affleck’s version does – insist the diplomats go on a fake location scout to the Grand Bazaar. “We could never have done that,” Mark Lijek told the BBC in 2013. “Our story was to be that the Canadian ambassador had strongly advised us not to scout for locations because of instability on the streets.”
One factual detail sees the hostage-takers piecing back together shredded documents from the US embassy. In the film, it’s just a matter of time before the missing six diplomats are identified because – rather ridiculously – the embassy keeps A4 photos of personnel, like readymade wanted posters. “The anti-Shah Iranian students piecing together shredded US embassy cables in Tehran weren’t looking for photos of the escaped diplomats, as ‘Argo’ implies,” wrote Juan Cole. “They were looking for evidence of the ways the intelligence officials under cover at the embassy had been monitoring them and their friends and putting them in torture cells.”
Argo cranks the tension by having the US officials pull the plug on the operation while Mendez is in Tehran. Mendez defies orders and continues, creating a nail-biting moment. Will the airplane tickets be arranged and waiting for them at the airport? Or will the US authorities stand firm and leave them stranded? (Spoiler: the tickets clear just in time.) The real tickets were arranged in advance by – who else? – the Canadians. For Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, this invention has political implications: it’s reminiscent of spy Kermit Roosevelt Jr, who in 1953 defied CIA orders to return home and succeeded in organising the coup against Mohammad Mossadegh .
At the time, Iranian airport officials used a cabornless two-sheet embarkation/disembarkation form. Officials retained a white sheet, and the traveler retained a yellow copy, which would be reconciled when the traveler returned to depart. Intel discovered that airport workers rarely bothered reconciling the forms; but the film plays it as a tense kerfuffle, as an official disappears from the desk to search the non-existent white form.
In the real incident, Lee Schatz had gone ahead of the group. “I walk up, hand them this, and we know this is clearly a false document that has been prepared on our behalf,” Schatz told NPR. “I handed it to the individual, and he looked at my passport and walked into a side room. And I thought, ‘Whoa. They can’t actually match up these numbered pieces of paper, can they?’ Seemed like forever. This guy came out stirring a cup of tea.” Schatz realised it was just a tea break.
“It’s true there could have been problems with documentation – it was our biggest vulnerability,” said Mark Lijek. “But the Agency had done its homework and knew the Iranian border authorities habitually made no attempt to reconcile documents.”
The final moments of Argo’s airport escape are a film-making masterclass. Armed guards hold up the diplomats, while calling Studio Six to confirm their cover story; in Hollywood, the phone rings – seemingly endlessly – as Chambers and Siegel are held up on a movie set. Meanwhile, at the embassy, the hostage takers finally identify the missing diplomats, and make a dash for the airport. It becomes a race against time to board the plane, which takes off as guards chase them down the runway.
Studio Six did have a phone line for top secret use (“If it ever rang, it meant that Mendez and the rest of the Argo crew were either in deep trouble or home free,” described Joshuah Bearman) but there was no last-minute rush to freedom.
Mendez deliberately chose an early flight so the revolutionary guards would mostly still be in bed. There were some guards milling around, inspecting fliers, but the only major drama was a brief flight delay due to mechanical problems. When they boarded the plane, Anders spotted the word ‘AARGAU’ printed on the fuselage. “You guys arrange everything, don’t you?” he said to Mendez.
At the end of the film, the Canadians take credit for the operation while Mendez’s role remains classified. That is true: the CIA’s role wasn’t revealed until 1997. But it’s framed to suggest that the Canadian’s sponged the credit from the CIA’s heroics. The original postscript, which noted Ken Taylor had 112 citations, was interpreted by some as snide – to suggest he didn’t deserve them.
After a controversial response, Affleck called Taylor and changed the postscript. It now reads: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”
Speaking to NPR in 2013, Affleck addressed his liberties with historical fact. “It’s that struggle between… the bookkeeper’s reality and… the poet’s reality, and you make judgments as a director, ” he said. “And my judgment falls really cleanly on the line of, ‘It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and what happened.’”
Argo is a blistering piece of cinema. But for some, it’s a missed opportunity at a deeper truth. “Argo could have been a moment when Americans come to terms with their Cold War role as villains in places like Iran,” wrote Juan Cole. “It could have been a film about what intelligence analysts call ‘blowback’, when a covert operation goes awry. Instead it plays into a ‘war on terror’ narrative of innocent Americans victimized by essentially deranged foreign mobs.”