I saw Argo over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, it’s the smart, suspenseful, mostly true story of how six Americans were brought out of Tehran – “exfiltration,” often abbreviated to “exfil,” is the term of art – in 1980, in the middle of Iran’s Islamic revolution. (Fifty-two other US Embassy employees weren’t so lucky: They spent 444 days as protagonists in what became known as the Iran hostage crisis.)
I say Argo is mostly true because, like most narrative art, it takes some liberties with historical fact, telescoping and condensing and even inventing when it serves the story. For a more literal account of the real-life drama, whose details were declassified in 1997, you may want to read the memoir of Antonio Mendez, the CIA agent who masterminded the escape. (He’s played by Affleck in the film.)
Genuine publicity for a fake movie. Via Foreign Policy.
Or you can read “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran,” Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article for Wired that’s getting a lot of new eyeballs this season. It’s a terrific read that fills in many of the blanks (such as the roles of some unsung or undersung Canadians). For my part, I was amused by one passage toward the end that’s omitted from the movie but appealed to my love of names, puns, and coincidences.
A little background: Argo was the actual title of the fake sci-fi flick that formed the cover for the exfiltration. And Anders is Bob Anders, a senior embassy officer who was one of the six Americans being exfiltrated.
Here’s the passage from Bearman’s story:
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?”
In Affleck’s movie, the Argo title is never fully explained. A minor character asks whether it’s a reference to the ship of Jason and his Argonauts. “Ar … go fuck yourself,” replies Lester Siegel, the (fictional) Hollywood producer played by Alan Arkin. And, according to an account in Foreign Policy of the actual events, that “profane ‘knock-knock’ joke” is in fact how Argo got its name.
An additional tidbit from Foreign Policy:
One “ironic coda” from the CIA account: “By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received 26 scripts.… One was from Steven Spielberg.”
In Canada, by the way, l’affaire Argo is known as “the Canadian Caper.”