From spy to screen
Man behind 'Argo' recalls daring escape
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 28, 2013 02:03
The atmosphere was tense, the stakes high. Six American diplomats, caught in the political turmoil of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, were being smuggled out of the country.
The CIA had conducted countless exfiltration missions of clandestine agents in the past, including Iran, but this one was different. These were American diplomats, not trained spies.
Failure would be catastrophic. Disguised as a Canadian film crew, the six refugees, along with CIA operatives, desperately made their way through the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran.
“I think what was going through my mind was ‘I think this feels okay,’” said Tony Mendez, the CIA mastermind behind the operation. “That’s the moment of truth, when you get to the end of the chase.”
Thursday night, Mendez — a recipient of the CIA’s highest honor, the Intelligence Star, and the mastermind behind the exfiltration mission — attended the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation’s free screening of “Argo,” the Best Picture-winning film based on the “Canadian Caper” events.
Mendez, played by Ben Affleck in the film, opened the showing in Rudder Auditorium with remarks and took part in a Q-and-A session after the show, giving insight into the true story.
Mendez said while the film exaggerates some aspects of what really happened, the overall spirit of the mission was portrayed accurately.
“The point is, everything that happened in real life cannot necessarily be represented in a movie the way it happened. Otherwise, everyone would fall asleep,” Mendez said. “There was the same feeling of being pursued there that goes throughout the whole movie.”
“Argo,” based on Mendez’s book “The Master of Disguise” and Joshuah Bearman’s Wired article, “The Great Escape,” has gained national renown since its release in late 2012, receiving three Oscar wins and four nominations.
The film follows the events that fol that followed the 1979 American Embassy takeover in Tehran, a result of the overthrow of the American-supported Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The coup led to 52 Americans becoming hostages.
Mendez, a disguise and exfiltration expert for the CIA, said the revolution sparked clandestine activity.
“There were exfiltrations in Iran since the revolution,” Mendez said. “It was an exodus of exfiltrations, because one faction is leaving and another is coming in.”
“Argo” focuses on the six Americans that escaped the embassy takeover and that Mendez was able to save through his guise.
“I’m proud that that story is made to share,” Mendez said. “It’s always interesting to see the depiction of your life story and to see whether they get it right. I felt good about the fact that ‘Argo’ was being made. I felt like it was paralleling my true life pretty well.”
Details on the “Canadian Caper” mission remained classified until 1997, when they were finally unveiled by the CIA.
“I would have kept it a secret,” Mendez said. “I would have taken it to my grave, but in this case, the CIA asked me to share it.”
Mendez said the film did a good job of portraying the people he knew and worked with on the mission.
“I think it’s spot-on what they did,” Mendez said. “We went on set when we could in L.A., and when we were approaching one of the sets from quite a distance, we recognized people we were looking at. And then when we got closer, it wasn’t them at all. It was the actors. And they were so good that we could pick up their body language, which you’re looking at when you’re trying to identify somebody from a large distance.”
Ashley Smith, sophomore accounting major, said she enjoyed the Q-and-A with Mendez, where he revealed how the movie compared to the actual mission.
“I enjoyed it,” Smith said. “To get his perspective of the movie is awesome.”
Kyle Friedman, senior mechanical engineering major, said he was surprised by the accuracy of the film.
“It’s so interesting to hear his story,” Friedman said. “I feel a lot of times Hollywood will just run away with [stories] and change them.”
Mendez mentioned that one aspect the film did stray from was his family, saying that the film portrays his personal life in a different light. Mendez said he was closer to his children and late wife, Karen, than was portrayed in the movie, and that he actually had three children at the time instead of one.
“I said, ‘Come look at the script, your lives have been written out of the story. How do you feel about that?’” Mendez said, describing what happened when he first showed his children the script. “They said ‘We don’t mind, we know they have to trim down the story so it’s not so cumbersome. That’s a movie, not your family tree.’”
Mendez said the original script had his son named “Michael.” Mendez said the family asked Affleck, the director of the movie, to change it to Ian in honor of Mendez’s deceased son. Affleck agreed, and dedicated his film to Ian.
Mendez said he owes gratitude to his family, and to the Canadian and New Zealand officials involved in the mission. Mendez said that they still have reunions, along with the Americans he saved.
“We have reunions, meetings all the time,” Mendez said. “My family and their families, the Canadians, and the [New Zealanders] have been in touch.”