When I was in prison in Iran in 2009, I was hoping for someone like Tony Mendez to burst open the door to my cell and to whisk me to a waiting helicopter. Except that I hadn’t heard of him at the time and that I would have dismissed stories of hostage-rescue missions in Iran as fiction. But then in 2012, the movie Argo came out with a dramatized version of CIA operation Canadian Caper. In 1979, when Iran had taken all personnel at the US Embassy in Tehran hostage, six US diplomats had managed to escape during the storming of the embassy compound. They were hiding in the house of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran.
As the old saying goes, “life itself writes the best stories”, but you could add that the CIA writes even better ones. Considering “a lot of crazy ideas,” as they say in the film, they focus on “the best crazy idea”. The cover for the exfiltration of the American diplomats was to be a fake Hollywood movie, called Argo. The CIA set up a film production company, rented offices, printed posters, took out ads in magazines, gave press conferences about the science fiction film. There was even a full script. Tony Mendez, the CIA operative (played by Ben Affleck), was to fly to Tehran and use fake Canadian passports to present the six diplomats as location scouts for the upcoming fictitious film Argo. The goal was to leave by plane after a few days, directly under the watchful eyes of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The film is basically a thriller, and quite a good one at that, but you may also regard it as a period piece about the late 70s, with ugly haircuts, wide ties, huge glasses, sideburns, fax machines and Dream On by Aerosmith. It also provides an accurate depiction of Tehran, the bustling city, its bazaar and the beautiful snow-covered mountain range you see when flying into the city. In today’s world of the NSA reading your e-mails, it is an homage to the good old times of real espionage when operatives risked their lives, protected only by a ludicrous cover. Although you might know how the story ends, the film is captivating and fast-paced. The final scene at the airport (which is fictional) brought back the stressful memory of my own escape from Iran under circumstances similar to those depicted in the film.
I have read some criticism about Argo along the lines that Iranians were being unfairly depicted in a bad light, and I disagree. The Iranian housekeeper of the Canadian ambassador protects the houseguests. When Iranian students storm the US Embassy, there are plenty of Iranians being shown who are at the embassy, applying for visas to get to the USA, thus symbolizing the rift that went through Iranian society in 1979 (and does until today to some extent) between those in favor and those against the Islamic Revolution and the governing system that grew out of it. That the occupiers of the US embassy and the Revolutionary Guards are portrayed as menacing is simply accurate. They were and they are. There is a reason why millions of Iranians have fled their own country since 1979 and continue doing so until today. It is an indisputable fact that taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days soured Iran-US relations for decades to come, much more to the detriment of Iranians than that of Americans.
Argo can be accused of taking some artistic license, but it clearly does so in an effort to be a good thriller, not a work of propaganda. The intro to the film even provides an overview of Iran’s history before the Islamic Revolution, pointing out that the CIA was involved in a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953 and that the USA and other Western nations had propped up the dictatorship of the Shah. As far as I can tell, the promised Iranian cinematic response to Argo has not yet been released.
- Get Argo on Amazon.
- Tony Mendez’ book about the operation and about his life at the CIA.
- More articles about Iran.
- More articles on espionage, but only the few things I am allowed to tell.
- More movie stuff.
- This review was also published by Medium.
I lived in Iran for 6 years in the early 60s, I thought Argo depicted Iranians very accurately, from the housekeeper to the airport officials and in between except perhaps the rather heavy handed intro about the Shah who had his faults, but who also tried desperately to bring Iran out of the 3rd century and into the 20th….and failed.
Undoubtedly Mohammed Reza Shah tried to modernize Iran (and was successful in that to some extent), but unfortunately he failed to extend this modernization of the economy to the political system, where the Shah ruled as a brutal dictator in effect. The thousands of people arrested, tortured and killed by SAVAK should count more heavily than anything else, in my mind.
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