Argo filmmakers talk about unbelievable true story
November 06, 2012
ON November 4, 1979, as the Iranian revolution reaches its boiling point, militants storm the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.
In the midst of the chaos however, six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.
Knowing it is only a matter of time before the six are found out and likely killed, the Canadian and American governments ask the CIA to intervene.
The CIA turns to their top ‘exfiltration’ specialist, Tony Mendez, to come up with a plan to get the six Americans safely out of the country. A plan so incredible, it could only happen in the movies.
Based on real events Argo, which is out this week, chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue the Americans, focusing on the little-known role that the CIA and Hollywood played – information that was not declassified until many years after the event.
The plan was for the six to pose as a Canadian filmmaking team on a location scout and then simply fly out… although it was anything but simple.
Starring as Mendez, Academy Award winner Ben Affleck said of the brilliant but outrageous escape plan: “Tony was friends with a famous makeup artist named John Chambers and knew it was a viable prospect for movie people to be traveling around, checking out different locations. He came up with an idea no one else would ever have thought of.”
Mendez added: “This was a game with no rules, so it was extremely risky. The most dangerous thing about it was the capriciousness of the people we were trying to get around.
“We had no way of predicting what would happen if we got caught—to us or to those already held hostage.”
Holding an emergency session, the Canadian Parliament made a rare exception to their own laws to provide the six Americans with fake Canadian passports, under the ‘film crew’s’ individual aliases.
They arrived by diplomatic pouch to Ambassador Taylor, who met with Mendez to deliver them.
Applying his expert counterfeiting skills, Mendez imprinted them with the correct Iranian visas and entered dates to indicate that the six had arrived in the country only the day before.
“To me, one of the most important themes of the movie is remembering when the United States stood up as a nation to say ‘Thank you, Canada’,” said Affleck. “None of this would have happened without them, so America will always have a debt of gratitude to our friends to the north.”
In today’s instant information age, it seems inconceivable that the entire operation remained top secret until it was declassified by President Clinton in 1997.
Surprisingly, even after Tony Mendez recounted the events in his 2000 book, Master of Disguise, and, later, Joshua Bearman detailed them in Wired, most people remain largely unaware of a story that even Affleck admits “sounds utterly absurd”.
“I understand that, because it seems completely unbelievable, but the fact that it happened is what makes it even more fascinating,” the actor said.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio was entrusted with turning the rescue operation into a script and went right to the source.
“When I read the article, I was riveted, and I was especially curious about Tony Mendez, about what kind of guy could think outside the box enough to come up with this plan and then undertake it,” he said.
“If I had pitched this as an original concept, brows would furrow and people would say, ‘No audience will ever believe that.’
“But Tony managed to convince the United States government to attempt something that was even crazier than what most Hollywood studios would dream up.”
Affleck, who also directs the film, said of Terrio’s handiwork: “It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.
“I’m always on the lookout for a great story, and I know when I find one. That was certainly the case with Argo. It was a true page-turner, so I was happy to get a crack at directing it.”
Argo is in cinemas from Friday, certificate 15.