History on the Big Screen – Argo

By Barbara Maranzani

Hello history (and film) fans. We’re happy you’ve joined us for this week’s installment of “History on the Big Screen”. Once again, we’re exploring the real stories behind some of this year’s Academy Award—nominated films. As usual, we’ll tell you what the filmmakers got right, what they got wrong and everything else you should know to be the history know-it-all at your Oscar® party. This week, we’re decoding “Argo,” the (mostly) true story of the clandestine rescue of a group of Americans, set against the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis. Just a warning, there are spoilers ahead.

Followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini outside the occupied U.S. embassy compound, November 1979.

Followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini outside the occupied U.S. embassy compound, November 1979. (STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

How accurate is the depiction of the taking of the U.S. embassy by Iranian militants?
According to witnesses-—including many of the 52 Americans hostages-—the film’s opening sequence accurately portrays the chaotic takeover of the embassy compound on November 4, 1979. The filmmakers utilized newsreels of the actual event interspersed with new footage to recreate the events. And while the film focuses almost entirely on the six Americans who were not taken hostage, the few scenes of Americans who remained in captivity take only a few historical licenses: The Islamic militants did put young carpet weavers to work reassembling documents shredded by Americans as the mob approached, but there is no evidence that they discovered the identities of the missing Americans this way. What you don’t see in the early part of the film, however, is that there were actually two groups of embassy workers who tried to escape–the group of six who become the focal point of the film, as well as another, smaller group. This second group never made it to safety; they were quickly apprehended by the militants and brought back to the American embassy where they remained in captivity for 444 days.

Was the Canadian film ruse the only option the Americans had to choose from?
In the movie, the U.S. government comes up with several possible scenarios to smuggle the hostages out, eventually discarding them all in favor of the Hollywood hoax. In fact, a number of different options were prepared and when Tony Mendez traveled to Tehran he presented three of them to the six American hostages. The hostages were skeptical of the other two, which involved impersonating either businessmen or schoolteachers, as was Mendez. They all felt the fictional film crew backstory was the most developed, and together with Mendez they moved forward with that scheme.

If anything is fictionalized, it’s the Hollywood stuff, right?

While Los Angeles is the land of make-believe, the movie plays it pretty straight when it comes to Hollywood’s role in the plan to spring the Americans hiding in Iran. Renowned makeup artist John Chambers really was on the CIA’s payroll. Chambers and Tony Mendez did set up a fake film company that claimed to be producing a fantasy film called “Argo.” There were ads taken out in the trade papers to make it look more convincing. And there were people waiting around to answer phone calls from curious Iranian officials should the need arise. However, the producer played by Alan Arkin is a composite of a number of media people recruited to work on the project. The movie script that becomes the launch pad for the mission was not called “Argo,” and Tony Mendez didn’t discover it. The real story of the fake movie is even more complicated. The screenplay was originally called Lord of Light, and had been adapted from a popular 1968 sci-fi book by screenwriter Barry Ira Geller. But Geller had more than just a movie in mind. Lord of Light was going to be the launching pad for a science fiction theme park he intended to build in Colorado, and his project had lots of successful talent attached: Legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby, who had co-created characters such as Captain America, the X-Men and the Hulk, designed storyboards for the film and theme park, and both author Ray Bradbury and theorist Buckminster Fuller consulted on the project. When Geller’s plans went awry amid accusations of fraud, the movie—and theme park—ideas collapsed. When Tony Mendez was searching for script to use as part of the project, it was Chambers, who had also worked with Geller, who suggested Lord of Light.

Did that nice Canadian ambassador save American lives?

The six Americans rescued from Iran meet with President Jimmy Carter.

The six Americans rescued from Iran meet with President Jimmy Carter.

Well, yes and no. The six Americans who escaped: Bob Anders, Mark and Cora Lijek, Lee Schatz and Joe and Kathy Stafford, did not rush immediately to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Lee Schatz split off from the group and initially went into hiding with some helpful Swedish friends. The rest of the group spent more than a week hiding out in Tehran, moving from location to location (including a few nights spent with British and New Zealand officials) before phoning a friend, Canadian consular official John Sheardown. It was Sheardown who invited them into the protection of Canadian custody. Sheardown then contacted Ken Taylor who obtained official permission to shelter the Americans for as long as necessary. The entire group didn’t even stay with Taylor, but were instead split up between the ambassador’s residence and Sheardown’s house and spent little time together. It’s Sheardown, who is not included in the movie at all, who the American workers credit with initial saving their lives.

How involved was Canada in the plot?
Our neighbors to the north actually played a far bigger role than depicted on the big screen. In “Argo,” the six hostages are shown camping out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor for the duration of the film, simply waiting for American assistance. In fact, Canadian officials devised some of the earliest evacuation scenarios; provided intelligence information about how to evade detection at Tehran’s airport; bought the plane tickets used to get the prisoners out; and spent weeks instructing their guests on the finer points of passing as a Canuck. And it was a Canadian consular officer who saved the day when he realized that the entry visas created by Mendez were incorrect—the CIA had failed to take into account that New Year’s is celebrated during the spring in Iran, and the U.S. documents bore the wrong year and had to be fixed at the last minute. On screen it’s the U.S. government officials who are seen questioning the rescue mission, and that happened across the border as well. Just issuing the passports that the Americans used during the ruse caused quite a stir in the Canadian government, and it took a clandestine, fractious, late-night session of Parliament, the first since World War II, to get the official go-ahead for the paperwork.

President Carter congratulates CIA operative Tony Mendez in the Oval Office.

President Carter congratulates CIA operative Tony Mendez in the Oval Office.

Were the Americans nearly caught during the escape itself?
There are a few details in the latter parts of the film, both large and small, that are purely fictitious. Tony Mendez did not take the group to a market in central Tehran to meet with Iranian officials. That would have been far too dangerous. The only time the group left their safe houses at all was for the trip to the airport that ends the film. It is true that the group did not have the necessary paperwork to get past one of the checkpoints, but the Canadians had already determined that the Iranian guards rarely tried to match that form of documentation. There was no potential glitch with airplane tickets, because in real-life the Canadians themselves had purchased the tickets, not the CIA. There was some delay in getting the group on board the Swiss air flight, but that was due to maintenance problems, not some last-minute questioning of the Americans’ true identities. In fact, after all of the groundwork the CIA and Canada had done to make both “Argo” and its film crew appear legitimate, Iranian officials never questioned them at all, let alone chased them down the tarmac. In the end, the mission went off without a hitch.

Categories: Academy Awards, Iranian Hostage Crisis, Movies