Covert Action

The Real Story of Argo: Some Links

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, October 19, 2012, 7:06 AM

I saw the movie Argo last weekend. It's an excellent film, and as readers likely know already, its subject is a real covert action. After seeing it, I became curious about how accurate a portrayal of the events in question the movie is, and I found a bunch of interesting articles on the underlying operation. I thought I would pass them along.

For those who want a quick reality check on the movie, Slate has done a nice piece entitled, "How Accurate Is Argo?" It opens:

Argo, the new movie from actor-director Ben Affleck, has mostly been getting raves—including a qualified but fairly strong endorsement from Slate’s own Dana Stevens, who calls it “a rollicking yarn” and “easily the most cohesive and technically accomplished of Affleck’s three films so far.” But several reviews have also noted just how far the movie departs in certain respects from the historical record. In the movie’s dramatic climax, Stevens writes, the “broadly accurate retelling of real events” gives way to “some fairly whopping dramatic license.” Similarly, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane—who also enjoyed the film—found it a “bit rich” that the movie pokes so much fun at “Hollywood deceitfulness” only to end “with an expert helping of white lies.” Former Slate film critic David Edelstein goes even further: NPR headlined his review “Argo: Too Good To Be True, Because It Isn’t.”

So just how accurate is Argo? And what are the white lies and dramatic whoppers the movie indulges in? We’ve tried to break it all down below. While it seems odd to offer a spoiler alert for a movie based on historical events, be warned that the rest of this post will discuss the movie in some detail. But you should also know that a lot of the most interesting details below aren’t in the movie at all—because, it turns out, much of the stuff Argo leaves out is even better than what made it in.

Slate also has a first-hand account of the operation by one of the embassy staffers rescued, Mark Lijek: "I Was Rescued From Iran: It Wasn't Like the Movie." It recounts that Mendez's operation was far better---and thus far less dramatic---than the film:

Argo, Ben Affleck’s new movie about the rescue of six Americans from Iran, is a terrific thriller, even if you know the ending. I left the theater sweating—just as when I exited the airport bus to board a Swissair flight out of Tehran in January of 1980, one of the six Americans who were rescued by Tony Mendez, the CIA employee Affleck plays. Affleck’s version of events is not only a well-told tale, but a useful story, a necessary and enjoyable mechanism for introducing a younger generation to the origins of our confrontation with Iran. But for me, Argo is also a peek into a nightmarish alternate universe of how things might have been. Could I have survived three months under the stressful conditions depicted in the film? Would I have kept my cool if Iranian paramilitaries questioned my identity?

Fortunately, these are questions I never had to answer. Our Canadian hosts kept us confident and comfortable, and the plan hatched by Mendez worked even better than Argo suggests. As you may know by now, Mendez cooked up a fake movie production and suggested we pose as location scouts considering Iran for our film. That idea may sound crazy today, but we liked it right away, as I recall, and for three reasons. First, and most importantly, we bought the idea that Hollywood people would be so presumptuous as to think they could walk into the middle of a revolution and shoot a movie. Second, it was backstopped: The phone number on my fake business card would be answered, and we had a script, storyboards, and other paraphernalia. Lastly, the plan allowed the six of us to travel as a group, and support each other.

We liked the idea enough, in fact, that we chose it over two other scenarios that Tony also brought to us. In one of them, we would pose as businesspeople, in something petroleum-related, if I remember correctly. In the other, I think we were meant to be teachers looking for employment at an international school. But those two seemed like throwaways, and Tony did not try too hard to sell us on them. It was clear the organization and energy was focused on the Hollywood option. And they were right to be: While the movie presents myriad dramatic complications and last-minute twists and turns, the plan actually went off without a hitch.

For a deeper dive into the subject, check out the article on which the movie is partly based, a 2007 piece in Wired magazine by Joshuah Bearman, entitled "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran." And perhaps most interesting and least noticed, check out the lengthy and detailed account of the operation by Mendez himself---posted on the CIA's web page back in 2007:

The bus trip [across the tarmac] was brief and as we started up the ramp to board the airplane, Bob Anders punched me in the arm and said, "You arranged for everything, didn't you?" He was pointing at the name lettered across the nose of the airplane. The name of our airplane was "Argau," a region in Switzerland. We took it a sign that everything would be all right. We waited until the plane took off and had cleared Iranian airspace before we could give the thumbs up and order Bloody Marys.

By lunchtime, Julio and I were sitting in the Zurich airport restaurant waiting for our connecting flight to Germany. Some of the six dropped down and kissed the tarmac of the Zurich runway after they came down the ramp. The other passengers viewed this as rather strange behavior.

US State Department representatives met us at the other side of Swiss immigration and customs. The six were whisked away in a van to a mountain lodge; Julio and I were left standing in the parking lot. I had loaned one of them my topcoat because it was chilly. It was US Government property; Julio and I had bought European-style clothing, topcoats, and shoes for our trip to Tehran. I never retrieved the topcoat, and later was admonished by our Budget and Fiscal people when I did my accounting. Just another typical TDY. All part of the job.