Some Lessons of Argo

— by Hannah Lee    

When the animated musical film Prince of Egypt was released in 1998, a rabbi acquaintance expressed his dismay over the Hollywood version of the yetziat Mitzrayim story. Why worry?, I asked in my naiveté. He reminded me that for many Americans, it’d be the only version they know of that Bible story.*  My husband and I saw Argo this weekend when it finally arrived at my local Bala Cinema and we thought it a fabulous movie, thrillingly told. The rescue of six Americans, trapped in Iran after our embassy was invaded in 1979, was classified until 1997 and remained under our national radar. It only made the headlines when Joshuah Bearman wrote about it for Wired magazine. That article sparked

More on what you can learn from Argo, the film, as well as from published testimony after the jump.

Ben Affleck, center, with his “Argo” inspiration Tony Mendez, far left, and real-life “house guests” Kathleen Stafford, Bob Anders and Lee Schatz. At right are Pat Taylor and former Ambassador Ken Taylor (Keegan Bursaw/Embassy of Canada)

The historical context: On January 16, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Persian monarchy under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced it with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On November 4, the American Embassy walls were breached by Islamic students and militants; 52 Americans were held hostage while five embassy employees escaped from the back. These five plus an agricultural attaché managed to evade capture by moving from house to house until they were welcomed by the Canadian Embassy.    

The U.S. State Department considered various preposterous schemes to rescue these “houseguests” that would not jeopardize the welfare of the remaining hostages. Finally, the CIA offered another plan: "It's the best bad idea we have, sir. By far," declared Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck in the film. Mendez was the best CIA agent in “exfiltration” (extracting people from hostile situations) who came up with a scheme to set up a fake movie company, Studio Six Productions, dedicated to the six Americans to be rescued.  

Studio Six, as set up by Mendez and John Chambers, a veteran Hollywood insider (who won an Oscar for creating the masks and makeup for Planet of the Apes), occupied an office on the old Columbia Studio lot in Hollywood and announced its intention to produce a non-existent sci-fi movie, Argo, by placing full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Mendez would pose as the Irish Kevin Costas Harkin, the assistant producer, fly into Tehran, and leave with his scouting party of six.    

Given less than a 50% chance of success (as later revealed by President Jimmy Carter whose hope for a second term was dashed by the Iranian hostage crisis), but in a delicate blend of risk, training, and luck, Mendez did succeed in spiriting the six Americans out of Iran on January 27, 1980. They left with Canadian passports, aboard a Swissair flight for Zurich, flying out of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.

The delicate situation of the remaining hostages meant that the “Canadian caper” was classified, with no public mention of the role of the CIA. The hostages would languish for 444 days until they were released in January 20, 1981, with one failed military attempt, Operation Eagle Claw.      

If I can learn the truth from other sources, then I don’t mind that Hollywood changes the facts to make their product more heart-thumpingly (and hands-over-the-eyes) dramatic. I’ve learned that Tony Mendez, the CIA agent, and John Chalmers, the Hollywood makeup artist, were both awarded the top CIA honor for their multiple services for our country. However, there were other heroes in this crisis, such as the Canadians (their roles minimized in the movie) and the British (erroneously disparaged in the film). The housemaid—- the only good Iranian!– whose courage helped the six Americans at a crucial moment of questioning by the Islamic militia was probably made up for the film.    

The film, Argo, simplified the list of players by eliminating the role of Canadian consular official John Sheardown who, with his wife, sheltered four of the “houseguests” and makeup artist Robert Sidell who collaborated with Chambers in Studio Six. It telescoped events. Most glaringly, the role of the Canadians appear in the film as “glorified innkeepers,” keeping their houseguests comfortable with food and liquor (despite the ban on alcohol by the Islamic regime). The Canadians saw their roles diminished in the film, while the CIA– “the junior partner” in the words of their Ambassador to Iran of that time, Ken Taylor– became the team that masterminded and executed the delicate rescue.  

When Argo was aired at the Toronto International Film Festival, it almost caused another cross-border scandal. Later, Director Affleck invited Taylor and his wife to Los Angeles for a private screening and offered to change the postscript. The new postscript says: “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.”    Taylor said to Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star, “All the documentation to authenticate the diplomats as Canadians, the business cards, credit cards, the passports, the academic credentials, everything came out of Canada.” The ambassador’s wife, Dr. Pat Taylor, booked three sets of airline tickets with her own money. The Canadian Embassy staff scoped out the airport and, to create a pattern of chaos, sent members in and out of Mehrabad Airport.      

So, what are the lessons I’ve learned since viewing Argo? First, diplomacy matters.  When the Iranian revolutionary regime ignored all the rules of diplomatic protection and the Vienna Convention by invading the American Embassy, it was the diplomatic ties with the other embassies (British, Swedish, and New Zealander) that kept open the possible routes of escape.    

Second, language fluency is a matter of life-and-death in hostile situations: an embassy staffer passed instructions in Thai with the cook, Somchai "Sam" Sriweawnetr and another corrected an error in Farsi, when he noticed that the date for departure on the fake passports was listed before the date of arrival (based on the Shah’s calendar instead of the Ayatollah’s calendar, with the new Iranian year starting in late March). And in a less serious note, I’ve learned that fluent Farsi speakers noticed that Affleck says salam at the end of a conversation with an Iranian official, but salam means hello in Persian, not goodbye.    

Third, Hollywood rules and history rues. From the CIA account: “By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received 26 scripts. . . . One was from Steven Spielberg.”    

Director Ben Affleck is now touted as an Oscar contender for Argo, his third film; his two previous films were Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). It is a masterly work of art. The final credits juxtaposed the archival images with the Argo still shots. The casting of the six American “houseguests” was eerily exact. Furthermore, marveled Robert Sidell who’d collaborated with Chambers in Studio Six, "John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers… right up to capturing the legendary makeup man's limp.”    

Films based on true events inevitably become a balance between facts and the director’s artistic vision. Cinematic adaptations of fictional stories face the ire of devoted fans when they deviate from the books, but documentary-style dramas have the greater risk of changing the public’s understanding of world history. As a regular viewer, I do not challenge the director’s prerogative, but I count my blessings for living in a country where I can research the facts!

*An Orthodox friend disputes the rabbi’s contention, stating that the plot followed Midrash.


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