We went to see the film Argo last night. The film takes us back to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 for a sidebar (“the Canadian caper”) regarding the rescue of six State Department employees who had escaped from the American embassy at the time of the embassy’s takeover. The true story of their return from Tehran to the United States courtesy of the CIA was declassified by President Clinton in 1997.
The film comes wrapped with a canned liberal history of the rise of the Ayatollah at the outset (Joe Morganstern finds it “lucid”) and an audio voiceover by President Carter (who authorized the audacious removal operation) over the credits. Each is grating in its own way, but mercifully brief. The incredible story told by the film in between is a heart-stopper that reignites all the emotions we felt during the hostage crisis and feel again, if to a lesser extent, today.
The plot turns on the fake film “Argo” that provides the cover story for the escape of the State Department employees under the care of CIA operative Antonio Mendez, winner of the Intelligence Star for his part in the operation. Karen D’Souza provides the background of the true story here. Lou Lumenick’s New York Post review provides a good précis of the film. Manhola Dargis’s New York Times review links to the film’s sources for the story: Mendez’s memoir, The Master of Disguise, and Joshuah Bearman’s Wired article, “How the CIA used a fake sic-fi flick to rescue Americans from Tehran.”
Here is the spine of the true story that the film depicts:
Using a Canadian alias and passport, Mendez created a fake movie production company called Studio Six. He made up a movie poster for a fictitious film, and even took out ads in Hollywood trade papers, announcing the production. Then he flew to Iran with six fake Canadian passports and a risky plan. Keeping in mind the potential worst case scenario—should everybody be caught, “obviously it would go badly for us.” Mendez disguised the American diplomats as Canadian filmmakers looking to make a movie in Iran.
I came away from the film with deep gratitude to the government of Canada in general and to Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor in particular for their part in the operation, as well as to the indomitable Mendez. For more on the Canadian angle, see here.
This is the rare kind of film that the audience applauds at the end (as ours did last night at the Grandview in St. Paul). Although the film alters and gilds the true story to enhance the drama of the escape, I highly recommend it. (My heading for this post is a variation of the film’s recurring catchphrase: “Argo f*** yourself.”)