Jack O'Donnell (Brian Cranston) and Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) are tasked with saving six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis.
Several of the films contending for top prizes this year have one thing in common: They all say they’re inspired by true events.
Among them are Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Hitchcock and Ben Affleck’s Argo, which chronicles a covert operation that involved creating a fake Hollywood film in order to rescue six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis. (The Americans posed as the picture’s production crew in order to escape the country.)
The events of Argo are so over-the top that you have to wonder how much of it is true, and how much was simply inspired by real events. So this week, we’re looking into the real stories behind some of these films, not to detract from their dramatic or entertainment value, but to supplement drama with some history.
Matt Baglio co-authored the book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History along with Tony Mendez, the CIA operative, played by Affleck, who made it happen. Baglio joins NPR’s Robert Siegel to help give the film dramatization some perspective.
On the veracity of the fake film story
“Surprisingly, this is one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction. Tony knew right away that this particular operation was going to require something special. And through his partnership with [Hollywood makeup artist] John Chambers, he was able to go out to Hollywood, set up a fake production company, put an ad in the Hollywood Reporter [and] the Daily Variety, and then went into Iran and rescued these six Americans pretty much just as it’s portrayed in the film.”
On the truth behind the six American’s skeptical reaction to Mendez’s plan
“You’ve got six people here, they’ve been in Iran for three months hiding out. And you’ve got an individual, Tony, [who] comes in — he had a partner with him in real life — meeting with them saying, ‘We’re going to get you out and here are the plans on the table.’ I think for all of them it took a second or two to digest what he was saying. I mean imagine you don’t know who this individual is. Here he is saying there’s a fake production company; there’s actually Hollywood insiders staffing it in Los Angeles; these are your roles; you need to get into these roles because your life could depend on it.”
On who the fake film story was really intended for
“I think one of the aspects of why the Argo operation was so successful is that the audience wasn’t really the Iranian government; he was really coming up with this ruse, so to speak, to convince the six Americans that they could pull this off. Because what he wanted was that they were going to go through the airport with the confidence, you know, without looking suspicious. And when you have six untrained professionals who’ve never done this before, Tony, who had done this before, he knew that he had to come up with this idea that could make them feel comfortable, that could make them get engaged in this scenario. And he realized that Hollywood was the perfect choice, because everyone could kind of imagine what a Hollywood insider was like.
“… The ruse was there in case the Iranians stopped them. They had a business card, they had an actual working phone number and the office was staffed in Los Angeles.”
On whether the Iranians ever called the fake production company to check the story out
“No, they didn’t do that.”
On the airport chase at the end of the film
“There were some tense moments in the airport. There were some times when [the Americans’] documents were inspected, and there were some questions about photos, their flight was delayed. I think the film was very truthful … There wasn’t this chase, as is portrayed in the film … but it captures the tension. I think it’s very truthful in the sense that when you’re making a movie in a cinematic way you need to portray the inner tension that these people were dealing with. Audiences aren’t going to be satisfied with checking documents. One of the fascinating aspects of the real world of espionage is that it’s really all about the details. And there can be a lot of drama in a guy checking a cache or an ink, the quality of a paper or a document, but that’s just not going to translate very well on the big screen. So you’ve got to look for ways to engage the audience.”