Friday, January 18, 2013


Lester Siegel: The saying goes, "What starts in farce ends in tragedy."
John Chambers: No, it's the other way around.
Lester Siegel: Who said that exactly?
John Chambers: Marx.
Lester Siegel: Groucho said that?

“This is one of those movies that depend on your not thinking much about it; for as soon as you reflect on what’s happening rather than being swept up in the narrative flow, there doesn’t seem much to it aside from the skill with which suspense is maintained despite the fact that you know in advance how it’s going to turn out. ... Once the deed is successfully done, there’s really nothing much to say, and anything that is said seems contrived. That is the virtue of an entertainment like this; it doesn’t linger in the memory and provoke afterthoughts.”

- Stanley Fish, Literary Critic

 Argo is a 2012 American thriller film directed by Ben Affleck; it is a dramatization of the "Canadian Caper" based on an article published in 2007, in which Tony Mendez, a CIA operative, led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

The film stars Affleck as Mendez with Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman, and was released in North America to critical and commercial success on October 12, 2012. The film was co-produced by Affleck, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov. The story of this rescue was also told in the 1981 television movie Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper, directed by Lamont Johnson.

Argo received seven nominations at the 85th Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio) and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Alan Arkin). Argo also earned five Golden Globe nominations, and won the Best Picture - Drama, and Best Director, while being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Arkin.


Argo is based on the Canadian Caper that took place during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980. Chris Terrio wrote the screenplay based on Joshuah Bearman's 2007 article in Wired: "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran." The article was written after the records were declassified. 

A link to the article is here:

How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran

By Joshuah Bearman, WIred Magazine

November 4, 1979, began like any other day at the US embassy in Tehran. The staff filtered in under gray skies, the marines manned their posts, and the daily crush of anti-American protestors massed outside the gate chanting, “Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!”
Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple serving in their first foreign service post, knew the slogans — “God is great! Death to America!” — and had learned to ignore the din as they went about their duties. But today, the protest sounded louder than usual. And when some of the local employees came in and said there was “a problem at the gate,” they knew this morning would be different. Militant students were soon scaling the walls of the embassy complex. Someone forced open the front gate, and the trickle of invaders became a flood. The mob quickly fanned across the 27-acre compound, waving posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. They took the ambassador’s residence, then set upon the chancery, the citadel of the embassy where most of the staff was stationed.

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.
They tried to keep calm, and even to continue working. But then the power went out and panic spread throughout the building. The Iranian employees, who knew the revolutionary forces’ predilection for firing squads, braced for the worst. “There’s someone on the roof,” one Iranian worker said, trembling. Another smelled smoke. People began to weep in the dark, convinced the militants would try to burn down the building. Outside, the roar of the victorious mob grew louder. There were occasional gunshots. It was time to flee.
The Americans destroyed the plates used to make visa stamps, organized an evacuation plan, and ushered everyone to the back door. “We’ll leave in groups of five or six,” the marine sergeant on duty said. “Locals first. Then the married couples. Then the rest.” The consulate building was the only structure in the compound with an exit on the street. The goal was to make it to the British embassy about six blocks away.
It was pouring rain when they opened the heavy roll-down steel doors. The street was mercifully empty. One group turned north, only to be captured moments later and marched back to the embassy at gunpoint.

Heading west, the Staffords, the Lijeks, Anders, and several Iranians avoided detection. They had almost reached the British embassy when they encountered yet another demonstration. A local in their group gave some quick advice — “Don’t go that way” — and then she melted into the crowd. The group zigzagged to Anders’ nearby apartment, at one point sneaking single-file past an office used by the komiteh, one of the gun-wielding, self-appointed bands of revolutionaries that controlled much of Tehran.
They locked the door and switched on Anders’ lunch-box radio, a standard-issue “escape and evade” device that could connect with the embassy’s radio network. Marines were squawking frantically, trying to coordinate with one another. Someone calling himself Codename Palm Tree was relaying a bird’s-eye view of the takeover: “There are rifles and weapons being brought into the compound.” This was Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attach who was watching the scene from his sixth-floor office in a building across the street from the compound. “They’re being unloaded from trucks.”
The Iran hostage crisis, which would go on for 444 days, shaking America’s confidence and sinking President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, had begun. Americans would soon be haunted by Khomeini’s grim visage, and well-armed Islamic militants would parade blindfolded hostages across the nightly news and threaten trials for the “spies” that they’d captured. Everyone remembers the 52 Americans trapped at the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that ended with a disastrous Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. But not many know the long- classified details of the CIA’s involvement in the escape of the other group — thrust into a hostile city in the throes of revolution.
By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the five people huddled in Anders’ one-bedroom apartment realized they were in serious trouble. As the militants seized control, there were fewer English speakers on the radio net. Codename Palm Tree had fled. After the last holdouts in the chancery’s vault radioed their surrender, the only voices coming through the box were speaking in Farsi. The embassy was lost. The escapees were on their own.
The CIA was in chaos when Tony Mendez arrived at his desk the next morning. People dashed through the halls, clutching files and papers. Desks were piling up with “flash” cables — the highest-priority messages, reserved for wartime situations.
Mendez, 38, had been at the agency during the Vietnam War. But this seemed worse. At least then the US had another government to talk to. In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council refused to negotiate. With no diplomatic channels open, clandestine efforts were the last hope. But since the revolution had begun a year earlier, most of the CIA’s intelligence infrastructure in Iran had been destroyed. As former head of the Disguise Section and current authentication chief of the CIA’s Graphics and Authentication Division, Mendez oversaw logistical operations behind the tens of thousands of false identities the CIA was running. He knew there were only three field agents in Iran and that they had all been captured at the embassy.

At first, Mendez thought his job was to free the hostages. He started suiting up agents to penetrate Iran, and he spent a whirlwind 90 hours straight working on a plan called Operation Bodyguard in which a dead body double for the Shah would be used to arrange for the hostages’ release. It was a gorgeous plan, he thought. But the White House rejected it.
Then, a few weeks after the takeover of the embassy, Mendez received a memorandum from the State Department marked as secret. The news was startling: Not everyone in the embassy had been captured. A few had escaped and were hiding somewhere in Tehran. Only a handful of government officials knew the details because Carter’s advisers and the State Department didn’t want to tip off the Iranians.
Mendez had spent 14 years in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service — the part of the spy shop known for trying to plant explosives in Fidel’s cigars and wiring cats with microphones for eavesdropping. His specialty was using “identity transformation” to get people out of sticky situations. He’d once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen — using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison — so they could arrange a meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them with a “jack-in-the-box.” An officer would wait for a moment of confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.
For the operation in Tehran, his strategy was straightforward: The Americans would take on false identities, walk right out through Mehrabad Airport, and board a plane. Of course, for this plan to work, someone would have to sneak into Iran, connect with the escapees, equip them with their false identities, and lead them to safety past the increasingly treacherous Iranian security apparatus. And that someone was him.
On the run in Tehran, the escapees were obvious targets. They couldn’t sneak out on their own; they’d be spotted on the roads and certainly questioned in the airport. If they presented diplomatic passports, they’d be hustled back to the embassy and interrogated at gunpoint with the rest of the “spies.”
For the first few days, they quietly slipped between temporary hideouts, including the empty houses of those trapped at the embassy. They sometimes slept in their clothes in case they had to run. Using a phone was dangerous; the imams had tapped into the vast listening network the Shah had used to suppress dissent. Each place they stayed seemed increasingly vulnerable. Eventually, Anders rang John Sheardown, a friend at the Canadian embassy. “Why didn’t you call sooner?” Sheardown said. “Of course we can take you in.”
To minimize the risk, the group was split between the Sheardowns’ house and the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. Both homes were in the fashionable Shemiran district in northern Tehran. The Qajar dynasty buried its kings here, in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, and the district was now home to merchants, diplomats, wealthy civil servants — and a half-dozen diplomatic refugees in hiding: the five from the consulate and Henry Lee Schatz, the Codename Palm Tree broadcaster. He had hidden in a Swedish diplomatic residence for weeks before making his way to the Sheardowns.
The accommodations were luxurious. There were books, English-language newspapers, and plenty of beer, wine, and scotch. But the guests could never leave their quarters. As the weeks went by, a quiet routine developed. They cooked elaborate dinners, read, played cards. Their biggest daily concern was how to assemble teams for bridge — and whether they’d be captured and potentially executed.
As time passed, the threat of discovery was mounting. The militants had been combing embassy records and figuring out who was CIA. They had even hired teams of carpet weavers to successfully reassemble shredded documents. (The recovered papers would later be published by the Iranian government in a series of books called Documents From the US Espionage Den.) They might eventually figure out the true number of embassy staff, count heads, and come up short. Outside, the Revolutionary Guards had recently been making a show of force in Shemiran, menacing the streets where foreigners lived and coming very close to both hideouts. Once, the Americans had to dive away from the windows when a military helicopter buzzed the Sheardowns’ house. And everyone was spooked when an anonymous caller to the Taylor residence asked to speak with Joe and Kathy Stafford and then hung up.
Back home, the US and Canadian governments were nervous, too. Hints about the escapees had leaked, and several journalists were on the verge of piecing together the story. Even as the CIA worked to free the six, a wild array of unofficial rescue plans surfaced, mostly involving overland routes and smugglers. The CIA held discussions with Ross Perot, who’d just snuck two of his Electronic Data Systems employees out of a jail in Tehran. At a NATO meeting in December, an antsy Flora MacDonald, Canada’s minister of external affairs, confronted US secretary of state Cyrus Vance and suggested having the six Americans make for the Turkish border — on bicycles if necessary.

The Americans sensed the stagnation and growing peril. On January 10, 1980 — nearly nine weeks after going into hiding — Mark Lijek and Anders drafted a cable for Ken Taylor to send to Washington on their behalf. Mark later paraphrased its contents: “We need to get out of here.”
CIA cover stories are generally designed to be mundane and unlikely to attract attention. That’s how Mendez’s plan started out. He would use Canadian documentation for the Americans, because of the common language and similar culture — and, well, everybody loves Canadians. But Mendez still had to figure out an excuse for a half-dozen Canucks to be wandering through Iran’s theocratic upheaval. There were plenty of North American journalists, humanitarians, and oil industry advisers in country. But they were either heavily monitored or well known to authorities. The State Department thought they could masquerade as unemployed teachers, until someone realized that the English-language schools were all closed. When the Canadian government suggested nutritionists inspecting crops, Mendez dismissed the idea as preposterous: “Have you been to Tehran in January? There’s snow on the ground. And certainly no agriculture.”
He was stuck. For about a week, no one in Washington or Ottawa could invent a reason for anyone to be in Tehran. Then Mendez hit upon an unusual but strangely credible plan: He’d become Kevin Costa Harkins, an Irish film producer leading his preproduction crew through Iran to do some location scouting for a big-budget Hollywood epic. Mendez had contacts in Hollywood from past collaborations. (After all, they were in the same business of creating false realities.) And it wouldn’t be surprising, Mendez thought, that a handful of eccentrics from Tinseltown might be oblivious to the political situation in revolutionary Iran. The Iranian government, incredibly, was trying to encourage international business in the country. They needed the hard currency, and a film production could mean millions of US dollars.
Mendez gave his superiors an operations plan, with an analysis of the target, mission, and logistics. The task was so difficult that his bosses had signaled that they’d be reluctant to sign off on anything but an airtight exfiltration mission. But this proposal was detailed enough to be approved by them and the White House. Plausibility, as they say in the espionage business, was good.
To build his cover, Mendez put $10,000 into his briefcase and flew to Los Angeles. He called his friend John Chambers, the veteran makeup artist who had won a 1969 Academy Award for Planet of the Apes and also happened to be one of Mendez’s longtime CIA collaborators. Chambers brought in a special effects colleague, Bob Sidell. They all met in mid-January and Mendez briefed the pair on the situation and his scheme. Chambers and Sidell thought about the hostages they were seeing each night on television and quickly declared they were in.
Mendez knew they had to plan the ruse down to the last detail. “If anyone checks,” he said, “we need that foundation to be there.” If they were exposed, it could embarrass the government, compromise the agency, and imperil their lives and the lives of the hostages in the embassy. The militants had said from the beginning that any attempted rescue would lead to executions.

In just four days, Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell created a fake Hollywood production company. They designed business cards and concocted identities for the six members of the location-scouting party, including all their former credits. The production company’s offices would be set up in a suite at Sunset Gower Studios on what was formerly the Columbia lot, in a space vacated by Michael Douglas after he finished The China Syndrome.
All they needed now was a film — and Chambers had the perfect script. Months before, he had received a call from a would-be producer named Barry Geller. Geller had purchased the rights to Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light, written his own treatment, raised a few million dollars in starting capital from wealthy investors, and hired Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who cocreated X-Men, to do concept drawings. Along the way, Geller imagined a Colorado theme park based on Kirby’s set designs that would be called Science Fiction Land; it would include a 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a “planetary control room” staffed by robots, and a heated dome almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Geller had announced his grand plan in November at a press conference attended by Jack Kirby, former football star and prospective cast member Rosey Grier, and several people dressed like visitors from the future. Shortly thereafter, Geller’s second-in-command was arrested for embezzling production funds, and the Lord of Light film project evaporated.
Since Chambers had been hired by Geller to do makeup for the film, he still had the script and drawings at his house. The story, a tale of Hindu-inspired mystical science fiction, took place on a colonized planet. Iran’s landscape could provide many of the rugged settings required by the script. A famous underground bazaar in Tehran even matched one of the necessary locations. “This is perfect,” Mendez said. He removed the cover and gave the script a new name, Argo — like the vessel used by Jason on his daring voyage across the world to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
The new production company outfitted its office with phone lines, typewriters, film posters and canisters, and a sign on the door: studio six productions, named for the six Americans awaiting rescue. Sidell read the script and sketched out a schedule for a month’s worth of shooting. Mendez and Chambers designed a full-page ad for the film and bought space in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The night before Mendez returned to Washington, Studio Six threw a small party at the Brown Derby, where they toasted their “production” and Mendez grabbed some matchbooks as additional props to boost his Hollywood bona fides. Shortly thereafter, the Argo ads appeared, announcing that principal photography would commence in March. The film’s title was rendered in distressed lettering against a black background. Next to it was a bullet hole. Below it was the tagline “A Cosmic Conflagration.”
Mendez slipped into Iran on January 25, 1980, after receiving a cable from the CIA director indicating President Carter’s personal approval that read, “You may proceed. Good luck.” He flew in from Europe, where he’d obtained a visa at the Iranian consulate in Bonn. “I have a business meeting with my company associates,” he explained to Iranian authorities in Germany. “They’re flying in from Hong Kong tomorrow and are expecting me.” Mendez had broken into a cold sweat in the airport — even professionals have their moments of doubt — but he knew there was no turning back. He put his faith in the strength of his cover story.

As a specialist in forgery and counterfeiting, Mendez arrived with his watercolor kit and tools. But the rest of the exfiltration supplies had been sent ahead through diplomatic pouch and awaited him at the Canadian embassy. Mendez included everything he could think of: health cards and driver’s licenses, maple leaf pins, receipts from restaurants in Toronto and Montreal, the Studio Six business cards, a lens for the cinematographer, and the Argo production materials. The six passports were what Mendez called “real fakes”: genuine documents that the Canadian government prepared for the Holly wood aliases devised by the CIA. Acquiring those passports had been a coup for Mendez; Canadian law prohibits such falsification, but the country’s parliament held an emergency secret session, the first since World War II, to make an exception. Mendez rendez voused with ambassador Ken Taylor in his office, retrieved the Canadian passports, and imprinted them with Iranian visas. His ink pad was dry from the trip, so he wet it with some of the ambassador’s scotch and carefully entered dates indicating that the six members of the film crew had arrived in Iran the day before.
That night the Staffords, the Lijeks, Schatz, and Anders dined with the ambassadors of Denmark and New Zealand, along with some staff, at the Sheardown residence. The Americans had lit a fire, set out the hors d’oeuvres, and were already drinking when Taylor arrived with a surprise guest.
“We have prepared for your escape,” Mendez announced during dinner. He then explained the cover story and presented Kirby’s drawings, the script, the ad in Variety, and the telephone number of the Studio Six office back on Sunset Boulevard. Mendez handed out the business cards and passports. Cora Lijek would become Teresa Harris, the writer. Mark was the transportation coordinator. Kathy Stafford was the set designer. Joe Stafford was an associate producer. Anders was the director. Schatz, the party’s cameraman, received the scoping lens and detailed specs on how to operate a Panaflex camera. Mark Lijek noticed that Mendez wore a distinctively British Harris tweed sport coat, in keeping with his alias as an Irish film producer.
“What about the airport controls?” Joe Stafford asked.
It was a good question. Mendez knew there were no foolproof operations, and this one could hit a significant snag. Iranian immigration used a dual-copy embarkation/disembarkation form. There were matching yellow and white sheets. Upon entry, immigration kept the white copy, which was supposed to be compared with the yellow copy when someone left. A CIA contact at the Mehrabad Airport had provided the forms, and it had been no problem for Mendez to forge the yellow copy. Recent intelligence suggested that immigration agents often didn’t bother to match the forms.
The Americans were initially nervous about the plan. “Let me just show you how this kind of operation works,” Mendez said, picking up two corks from the many opened wine bottles. He put the corks between his thumbs and forefingers in two interlocking D shapes. “Here’s the bad guys,” he said, showing that they couldn’t be separated, “and here’s us.” With a sudden sleight of hand, he pulled them apart.
It was parlor magic — but somehow extraordinarily comforting. The six felt they had a competent leader. “It’s going to be that easy,” Mendez said, sensing the group’s growing confidence. “We’ll be able to fool them all.”

Studio Six was busy back home as well. Bob Sidell and his wife, Andi, were manning the production office. They had three phone lines. One was an unpublished number known only to the CIA. If it ever rang, it meant that Mendez and the rest of the Argo crew were either in deep trouble or home free. Andi answered the other two lines, which were ringing constantly.
When the ads appeared, Hollywood Reporter and Variety writers called, generating small news articles in each magazine. “Two noted Hollywood makeup artists — one an Oscar winner — have turned producers,” read an article in the January 25, 1980, Holly wood Reporter. “Their first motion picture being Argo, a science fantasy fiction, from a story by Teresa Harris … Shooting will begin in the south of France, and then move to the Mideast … depending on the political climate.” About the cast, Bob Sidell was quoted as saying, “We will use substantial names. At the moment we are sworn to secrecy.” The coverage in turn generated further interest in this new Hollywood player soon to start filming in the Middle East.
Sidell, who had been working in Hollywood for nearly 25 years, always said the whole town ran on BS, but even he was surprised by how easily the fictional universe of Studio Six took on the force of apparent reality. It was not long before this small CIA outpost found itself deep in the movie business.
They were always anxious that their secret third line would ring, but every call was film-related. Friends saw Sidell’s name in the ads and started asking for work. “Do you have a crew yet?” they wanted to know. “When’s preproduction?” Within a few weeks, Studio Six was overflowing with head shots, scripts, and pitches from producers.
“We’re not shooting for a couple of months yet,” he’d say. “Let’s talk again in a few weeks.” Several people solicited Studio Six with decent-sounding projects, so Sidell took meetings with them. One writer wanted to adapt a little-known Arthur Conan Doyle horror story about a reanimated mummy; Sidell even pursued releases from the Doyle estate — all the while knowing that, one day soon, Studio Six would disappear without a trace.
Everyone was in costume before dawn on January 28, 1980. Cora Lijek had used sponge curlers to give herself a Shirley Temple look. She thumbed through the script as they waited. Kathy Stafford donned heavy, bohemian-looking glasses, pinned up her hair, and carried a sketch pad and folder with Kirby’s concept drawings. Mark Lijek’s dirty-blond beard had been darkened with mascara. Anders thought of their escape as an adventure and flung himself into his role as Argo‘s flamboyant director: He appeared in a shirt two sizes too small, buttoned only halfway up his hairy chest to reveal an improvised silver medallion. He wore sunglasses, combed his hair over his ears, and acted slightly effeminate. Schatz played with his lens. During the previous two days, they’d done several dress rehearsals, with a Farsi-speaking staffer from the Canadian embassy dressing up in fatigues for mock interrogations, probing for cracks in their cover. They’d learned the movie’s story line and their characters’ backgrounds and motivations and were now waiting, essentially, for call time. By 4 am, they’d packed, thanked their hosts, and were on their way to Mehrabad Airport.

In the van, Cora checked her pockets again to make sure they contained nothing showing her real name. She and the others started playacting their new roles. The only exception was Joe Stafford, who was ambivalent about leaving behind colleagues at the embassy. He was unenthusiastic about the plan and had refused to change his appearance. Worse, he looked nervous.
Mendez had gone ahead. His office had been testing out Mehrabad, sending agents to enter and exit the country, checking the security. But he preferred to see things for himself. Like a bank robber sizing up a heist, Mendez could tell instantly if things felt right. He’d assess the customs and immigration desks — how diligent, for example, was the staff? More worrisome than the professionals were the komiteh and Revolutionary Guards standing behind them. Armed and unpredictable, they made the airport truly dangerous.
But that morning seemed calm. There were komitehs at customs, but their attention was focused on locals trying to smuggle out rugs or gold. Mendez had picked the early morning because by 10 am, Mehrabad would become a typically anarchic developing-world transit hub, with disordered lines of people, commotion, yelling, and shoving. That’s when the Revolutionary Guard would show up to have their run of the place.
When Mendez saw that the military presence was light, he signaled all-clear to his film crew. The Americans entered the airport with trepidation. They hadn’t been in public, after all, in nearly 80 days. Most of the escapees had worked in the consulate, and they all knew what it was like to scrutinize official paperwork, looking for flaws. Worse yet, three of them had worked in the visa line. They’d been seen by thousands of Iranians, many of whom might harbor grudges for being turned down.
Everyone breathed easier when check-in at the Swissair counter and customs went smoothly. The group made small talk as Schatz approached immigration, presented his passport, and got his stamp. The Americans were momentarily terrified when the officer disappeared with the rest of the crew’s passports. But then he absent-mindedly wandered back to the counter with some tea and waved the group on to the departure lounge without bothering to match the yellow and white forms.
The wait was agonizing. Everyone kept their heads down. Joe Stafford picked up a local paper at one point and then remembered that Canadian film crews don’t read Farsi. He also kept using people’s real names, giving the others serious jitters. It was getting later and brighter. The airport was filling with people. They knew there was no backup plan. Mendez wasn’t even carrying a gun, and the Revolutionary Guards were arriving, wandering around in fatigues and harassing passengers. Look them in the eye, Mendez had coached the six in case anyone was questioned. Be confident but seem innocent. But he knew from the agency’s reconnaissance that the guards could be tough, even subjecting people to sudden body cavity searches. A mechanical problem caused a delay, and the Revolutionary Guards were starting to turn their attention to foreign passengers.

Mendez disappeared. He had a contact at the airport and went to check on the flight status. No sooner had he learned that the delay would be short than they heard the announcement: “Swissair flight 363, ready for immediate departure.” As they boarded the plane from the windy tarmac, Anders noticed the word AARGAU was printed across the fuselage — the name of the Swiss region where the plane originated was strangely similar to that of their cover story. He punched Mendez’s arm and said, “You guys arrange everything, don’t you?”
Mendez smiled. After the plane’s wheels went up, Mendez knew he had just pulled off one of the most successful deception operations of his career. The bar opened once they left Iranian airspace, and everyone ordered Bloody Marys. Mendez leaned into the aisle, looked back at the group, and raised a toast: “We’re home free.”
A few hours later, Studio Six Productions got its first and last call on the secret third line. Startled, Andi picked up the phone. “It’s over,” an unidentified voice said. “They made it out.”

 In 2007, the producers George Clooney, Grant Heslov and David Klawans set up a project based on the article. Affleck's participation was announced in February 2011. The following June, Alan Arkin was the first person cast in the film. After the rest of the roles were cast, filming began in Los Angeles, in August 2011. Additional filming took place in McLean, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Istanbul.


Archival TV news footage from the era was used throughout the film as in-story exposition. Reflecting the time period of the film, the opening credits use the "triple slash" W Warner Bros logo (originally used by Warner Communications), which was used by the company from 1972 to 1984, instead of the contemporary "WB" shield logo.

Historical Accuracy:

The Shah and the coup
During the opening prologue, the narrator claims that the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed by the 1953 Iranian coup d'état. This is a half-truth - Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been Shah since 1941, but the coup d'état gave Pahlavi ultimate authority, whereas previously Iran had been a constitutional monarchy headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. The narrator says Mohammed Mossadegh was "overwhelmingly elected as “Prime Minister" by the Iranian people; technically, he was elected Prime Minister by the Iranian Parliament, after his predecessor was assassinated. Parliament members were elected by popular vote, as in many parliamentary governments. The Shah's full name was "Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi"; the film's narrator refers to the Shah as "Reza Pahlavi".

Canadian vs. CIA roles
After the film was previewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012, some critics said that it unfairly glorified the role of the CIA and minimized the role of the Canadian government, particularly that of Ambassador Taylor, in the extraction operation. Macleans asserted that "the movie rewrites history at Canada's expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga's heroic saviors while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge." The postscript text said that the CIA let Taylor take the credit for political purposes, which some critics thought implied that he did not deserve the accolades he received.  Affleck changed the postscript text to read, "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." The Toronto Star complained, "Even that hardly does Canada justice." When interviewed, Taylor noted that, "In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner. But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats." Taylor is also shown threatening to close the Canadian embassy in the movie; in reality, this never happened.

Affleck noted,

"Because we say it's based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we're allowed to take some dramatic license. There's a spirit of truth", and that, "the kinds of things that are really important to be true are—for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. stood up collectively as a nation and said, ‘We like you, we appreciate you, we respect you, and we’re in your debt.’...There were folks who didn’t want to stick their necks out and the Canadians did. They said, ‘We’ll risk our diplomatic standing, our lives, by harboring six Americans because it’s the right thing to do.’ Because of that, their lives were saved."

British and New Zealand roles
Upon its wide release in October 2012, Argo was criticized for its claim that the New Zealand and British diplomats had turned away the six American refugees in Tehran. Diplomats from New Zealand had proved quite helpful; one drove the Americans to the airport. The British hosted the Americans initially, but the location wasn't safe and all considered the Canadian ambassador's residence to be the better location. British diplomats also assisted other Americans beyond the six. Bob Anders, the U.S. consular agent played in the film by Tate Donovan, said, "They put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk. I hope no one in Britain will be offended by what's said in the film. The British were good to us and we're forever grateful."

Sir John Graham, the then-British ambassador to Iran, said, "My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage. I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the film-makers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979." The then-British chargé d'affaires in Tehran said that, had the Americans been discovered in the British embassy, "I can assure you we'd all have been for the high jump [i.e. in trouble]."

Affleck is quoted as saying to the Sunday Telegraph: "I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone."

Imminent danger to the group
In the film, the diplomats face suspicious glances from Iranians whenever they go out in public, and appear close to being caught at many steps along the way to their freedom: while pretending to scout for filming locations at a bazaar; while purchasing plane tickets to Zurich; while trying to board the plane; and finally before the plane takes off, when Iranian guards try to stop the plane in a dramatic chase sequence. In reality, the diplomats never appeared to be in imminent danger: the six never went to a bazaar, Taylor's wife bought three sets of plane tickets from three different airlines ahead of time, there was no confrontation with security officials at the departure gate, and there was no runway chase at the airport.

John Chambers (Make-up Artist)

John Chambers (Sept 12, 1923 - Aug 25, 2001) was an award-winning make-up artist who became a veteran of both film and television. He is a recipient of an Honorary Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Chambers was born in Chicago, Illinois. Following service as a medical technician during World War II, Chambers found employment repairing faces and making prosthetic limbs for wounded veterans at the United States Dept of Veterans' Affairs hospital at Hines, Illinois.

In 1953 he joined the NBC television network working for many live shows for a six-year period. He worked on his first movie, Around the World in Eighty Days, then joined Universal Pictures. He attracted attention for his work in The List of Adrian Messenger, which featured the gimmick of having the audience guess which famous stars were under Chambers' makeup. Chambers also worked on The Munsters and The Outer Limits TV series.
His work became known worldwide in the Planet of the Apes series, for which he won a special Academy Award. Chambers worked on the pilot of Mission Impossible and created the pointed ears worn by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek television series.

For his work in movies, Chambers has a "star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
John Chambers was also given the highest civilian award from the CIA for his help with numerous transformations. Some of his work can be seen at the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. He also set up the cover story of a film crew planning to shoot a science fiction film in Iran for his special effects colleague, Tony Mendez as part of what became known as the Canadian Caper, the rescue of some American embassy personnel who escaped capture by Iranian revolutionaries and were given sanctuary by Canadian diplomats in November 1979. In the 2012 film Argo, inspired by this episode, Chambers was portrayed by John Goodman.

Chambers was also accused of creating the Sasquatch in the Patterson-Gimlin film, a charge he denied.

The film contains other historical inaccuracies:

  • The major role of producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, is fictional.
  • The film depicts a dramatic last-minute cancellation of the mission by the Carter administration and a bureaucratic crisis in which Mendez declares he will proceed with the mission. Carter delayed authorization by only 30 minutes, and that was before Mendez had left Europe for Iran.
  • In real life, CIA agent Antonio Mendez is part-Mexican, leading some critics to argue that Ben Affleck should have cast a Hispanic actor, and not himself, in the role.
  • The Hollywood sign is shown damaged as it had been in the past, but it had actually been repaired in 1978, prior to the events described in the film.
  • During the stay in Istanbul, they walk at the outside of Yeni Cami ( New Mosque), but immediately after they enter inside of Hagia Sofia.

Besides being the title of the "movie" being filmed in the movie, "Argo" is from Greek mythology. It was the ship Jason and the Argonauts sailed in to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

In order to make the movie feel like the 1970s, Ben Affleck shot it on regular film, cut the frames in half, and blew those images up 200% to increase their graininess. He also copied camera movements and bustling office scenes from All the President's Men for sequences depicting CIA headquarters; for L.A. exteriors, he borrowed from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

Ben Affleck's first choice to play as Tony Mendez was Brad Pitt, but Pitt had some scheduling issues.    

 As shown in this movie, by the late 1970s, the Hollywood sign (which had first been erected in 1923 as "HOLLYWOODLAND" to advertise an upcoming real estate development) had fallen into severe disrepair. In 1978, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had a fund-raising campaign in which they solicited nine prominent people to give about $28,000 each (one donor for each letter) for the restoration. Some of these benefactors included: Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner, who gave the Y; singers Gene Autry and Andy Williams (the second L and the W, respectively), and heavy metal/shock rock star Alice Cooper, who replaced the third O (by far the most damaged of the letters) in memory of Groucho Marx. Warner Bros. Records, a division of the company that later released Argo, donated the second O. However, unlike the movie's depiction, this renovation was completed by the end of November 1978--a year before the hostages in Iran were even taken.

The script for Argo (used by the CIA, not for this film) is from the unmade feature film "Lord of Light" based on the novel by Roger Zelazny.

The character of Jack Kirby (played by Michael Parks), shown briefly as the artist of the storyboards for the “Potemkin movie”, is the same Jack Kirby who was a pioneer of the American comic book industry and a co-creator of such seminal comic book characters as Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and the teams known as The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, and The X-Men. Kirby did indeed create storyboards for the adaptation of Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light, which were used as "proof" of the movie production during the real-life "Canadian Caper."    

While Chambers, Mendez, and Siegel are trying to figure out how to make their fake movie project look plausible, Siegel recalls that he made a movie once with Rock Hudson, and from that draws the conclusion that if you want people to believe a lie, you should have the media disseminate it for you. This seeming non sequitur is a reference to the fact that Hudson, one of the biggest Hollywood stars and sex symbols of the 1950s, was secretly gay, and his agent, Henry Wilson, actively fed misinformation about Hudson's "girlfriends" (really studio-arranged dates for publicity only) to the mainstream media. When the gossip tabloid "Confidential" threatened to expose Hudson's homosexuality, Wilson instead fed them then-scandalous information about two of the less-famous stars on his roster (Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter) and arranged a sham marriage between his secretary and Hudson. Hudson's homosexuality was not widely known outside of Hollywood until about half a decade after this movie takes place.

No Iranian actors could be used for the film, out of fear that they would be recognized by the Iranian authorities in the finished film, which could have negative consequences for their family still living in Iran.    

Argo was directed by Ben Affleck and written by Chris Terrio.
Rated R, 120 min, Technicolor, Dolby Digital/DataSat, 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio.


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