Fiction and non-: Sorting history from invention in the movie ‘Argo’

December 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 17, 2014

Recently, I wrote about the excellent 2012 thriller Argo, which won the Academy Award for best picture. I was curious about the fidelity of the movie to the real-life events it depicts: The covert extraction of six United States Foreign Service employees who escaped the American embassy in Tehran when angry Iranians captured it on Nov. 4, 1979. Director Ben Affleck plays the hero of the piece, CIA agent Tony Mendez, a specialist in so-called exfiltration operations.

The very broad outlines of the movie are true: The CIA did create a phony movie company that purported to want to film a science-fiction feature named Argo in Iran; Mendez and the six fugitive Americans, who took shelter with Canadian diplomatic personnel, posed as Canadian moviemakers on a location scout and flew out of the country using that cover. A makeup artist named John Chambers (played here by John Goodman) was a key part of the fake production company. In real life, as in the film, this dummy corporation took out ads in trade publications and generated press coverage.

It turns out, however, that screenwriter Chris Terrio took liberties with many of the details of this caper. (Terrio’s script, which was based on Mendez’s memoir and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.)

For instance, the British didn’t turn away the fugitive Americans, as one of the film’s characters says. In the first six days after the embassy was captured, five Americans moved in a group to half a dozen different locations. One of these was the British embassy, which they left with the agreement of the U.S. and U.K. governments because Iranians had attacked British diplomatic properties. (The British embassy was actually captured for a brief period.)

The British also transported the five Americans to the home of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown. Around this time, Lee Schatz, who had spent a week hiding with Swedish diplomats, joined the quintet. The six fugitives didn’t all stay together; most hid in the Sheardowns’ residence, while Kathy and Joe Stafford went to the home of Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran.

In fact, other than Taylor’s involvement, virtually all of the particulars of what occurred in Iran after the U.S. embassy fell seem to have been either invented or adjusted for dramatic purposes. The cinematic Joe Stafford, played by Scoot McNairy, is skeptical about Mendez’s plan from the beginning; his opposition creates a key dramatic tension. (Stafford, at the start of the picture, also resists leaving the embassy as the angry crowd outside prepares to storm the compound.) In reality, Stafford and the other refugees loved the Argo cover story, which was one of three that Mendez proposed.

The anxiety-inducing sequence in which Mendez and the six houseguests (as they were actually called) visit a crowded bazaar is made up from whole cloth. Matt Singer of CriticWire writes that Mendez and the Americans actually spent their time rehearsing details of their cover identities in private.

The actual escape was also less dramatic than the one Argo shows. There was no wait at the airport for the ticket purchase to be confirmed; there were no suspicious Republican Guards questioning travelers, according to this Internet Movie Database trivia item; there certainly was no convoy of armed guards in automobiles chasing the airplane as it throttled up for its takeoff, which easily qualifies as the film’s most ludicrous aspect.

Many of the details of Argo’s Hollywood plotline are invented. Alan Arkin’s scenery-chewing movie producer, Lester Siegel, is entirely fictional. Chambers is an actual Academy Award–winning makeup artist who actually worked on the actual-fake Argo, but his real-life producing partner on the project was a fellow makeup artist named Roger Sidell.

And the fake movie wasn’t based on a script that Mendez happened to discover in a pile of rejected screenplays. It was in fact an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s best-selling novel Lord of Light, which luminaries such as science fiction writer Ray Bradbury and famed comic book creator Jack Kirby genuinely wanted to see created on celluloid. Kirby, according to this fascinating Slate article by Ben Haglund, did production drawings for the proposed picture, whereas in Argo, Mendez commissions original drawings.

Argo doesn’t spend much time developing the character of its protagonist, Mendez, but again, most of what we see is invented. Haglund reports that Mendez had three children with his first wife, who died in 1986; his memoir, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, makes no mention of the marital separation and reconciliation that the movie presents in beautifully underplayed fashion.

In the end, it’s clear that Argo is more a work of fiction than it portrays itself to be. (The closing credits, which juxtapose stills from the movie with contemporaneous photographs of the real people it portrays, certainly propagate the illusion that the preceding work was true to life.)

I find this a bit disappointing, to be frank, but it only partially diminishes my enjoyment of the film. Argo is clearly and openly a dramatization; its key purpose is to entertain. The film makes no pretensions of imparting some important historical truth. If the feature made controversial claims about particular individuals or nations, I think the lack of fidelity would be more significant. But in these circumstances, I’m willing to give Argo a pass.

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