The True Story Behind the Oscar Winning Movie ‘Argo’

Argo, the critically acclaimed movie directed by Ben Affleck, tells the true story of a daring rescue mission, that took place during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Here, we explore the incredible story that unfolded in Tehran, Iran, in 1979, and how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a pivotal role in the rescue of six American diplomats.

The Iran Hostage Crisis: A Historical Background

The Iran Hostage Crisis began on November 4, 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American hostages. The militants demanded the return of the Shah, who had fled to the United States for medical treatment, to face trial in Iran. The hostage crisis would last for 444 days and eventually lead to the severing of diplomatic ties between the two nations.

During the chaos of the embassy takeover, six American diplomats managed to escape and find refuge in the homes of Canadian diplomats. These six Americans, including Bob Anders and Lee Schatz were the subjects of the daring rescue mission that would become the basis for the film, Argo.

Tony Mendez: The Master of Disguise

The rescue operation, known as the “Canadian Caper,” was led by CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck. Mendez was an exfiltration specialist and a master of disguise. His job was to get the six Americans out of Iran undetected, as their discovery by the Iranian government would have resulted in their capture and likely execution.

Mendez devised an elaborate plan to create a fake Hollywood movie production, complete with a script, ads, and a fake production company called Studio Six Productions. The movie, a science-fiction film titled Lord of Light, would serve as the cover for the six Americans to escape Iran.

Creating a Hollywood Cover Story

In order to pull off the ruse, Mendez enlisted the help of Hollywood professionals, including makeup artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel. Chambers, played by John Goodman in the film, was a real-life Academy Award-winning makeup artist, while Siegel, portrayed by Alan Arkin, was a composite character based on several Hollywood insiders.

With their help, Mendez created a believable cover story. The six Americans would pose as Canadian film crew members scouting locations for the Lord of Light movie. To further solidify their cover, they were given Canadian passports, fake identities, and a thorough understanding of their roles as filmmakers.

The Role of Canadian Diplomats and Ambassador Ken Taylor

Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, played a crucial role in the success of the operation. He provided shelter to the group of Americans in his own residence and the home of his colleague, John Sheardown. Taylor also used his diplomatic connections to gather vital intelligence and liaise with the CIA to coordinate the escape plan.

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Throughout the ordeal, Taylor and the Canadian diplomats put their own lives at risk to protect the six Americans. Their efforts, along with those of the CIA, were instrumental in the successful execution of the mission.

The Escape from Tehran

After weeks of preparation and planning, the nail-biting rescue mission was set in motion. On January 28, 1980, the group, led by Mendez, made their way to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. Posing as a Canadian film crew, they were able to successfully pass through airport security, despite tense encounters with Iranian guards and immigration officers. Their fake passports and cover story held up under scrutiny, and the group boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich, Switzerland.

The six Americans, along with Tony Mendez, finally arrived safely in Zurich on January 29, 1980. From there, they traveled to the United States, where they were reunited with their families and welcomed home as heroes. The success of the mission remained a closely guarded secret for many years, with the Canadian embassy receiving much of the public credit for their role in the rescue.

From Classified Operation to Hollywood Blockbuster

The true story behind the “Canadian Caper” remained classified until 1997, when President Bill Clinton declassified the CIA’s involvement in the rescue. Following this revelation, the incredible tale of the escape from Tehran gained widespread attention, eventually inspiring the 2012 film Argo.

Argo was written by Chris Terrio and features an all-star cast, including Bryan Cranston, Clea DuVall, and Victor Garber, all of whom play key individuals involved in the rescue mission.

Argo received a total of seven nominations at the 85th Academy Awards and went on to win three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Despite the film’s critical acclaim and multiple awards, Ben Affleck was notably not nominated for Best Director, which was considered a significant snub by many in the industry.

Ben Affleck made his directorial debut with the film Gone Baby Gone, which was released in 2007. Gone Baby Gone is a crime thriller based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. Following the success of his first film, Affleck directed The Town in 2010, another crime thriller. Argo, released in 2012, was his third feature film as a director.

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Inaccuracies in the Film

Former President Jimmy Carter expressed admiration for the film Argo, but also pointed out a significant inaccuracy in its portrayal of events. He praised the film as a great drama and even hoped it would win the Academy Award for Best Film, which it eventually did. However, Carter highlighted that the film incorrectly attributed most of the credit for the rescue operation to the American CIA.

In reality, he stated that about 90% of the contributions to the ideas and execution of the plan were Canadian. Carter emphasized that the main hero of the actual event was Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador, who orchestrated the entire process. This contrasts with the film, which focuses on Ben Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, as the central figure in the rescue during the Iran Hostage Crisis

Memoirs, Novels, and Further Reading

The story of the “Canadian Caper” has been recounted in various forms, from memoirs and novels to journalistic accounts. Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who led the mission, published his own memoir in 2012 titled The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA. This book offers an insider’s perspective on the events that unfolded during the rescue operation.

Joshuah Bearman, a journalist, wrote an extensive article for The Hollywood Reporter in 2007, detailing the true story behind the “Canadian Caper”. This article, titled “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” served as the basis for the screenplay of Argo.

For those interested in exploring the experiences of the rescued Americans, Mark Lijek and Kathy Stafford have both published memoirs recounting their time in hiding and their eventual escape from Iran. These accounts provide firsthand perspectives on the events that transpired during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

The true story behind Argo reveals an incredible tale of courage, ingenuity, and international cooperation. While the Hollywood film may take some creative liberties, the underlying story of Argo remains a compelling chapter in history, and the film itself is equally thrilling. Argo received a critics score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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