Tony Mendez, clandestine CIA hero of Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo,’ reveals the real story behind film smash

Stranger-than-fiction mission snuck six Americans out of Khomeini’s Iran

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American and Canadian officials settled on providing six fake Canadian passports. Coming up with plausible cover identities was more difficult: Though many Westerners remained in Tehran, they already were known to and monitored by Iranian security forces.

The State Department suggested disguising the American diplomats as teachers. Problem was, all English-language schools were closed. The Canadian government reportedly considered having them pose as agricultural nutritionists — that is, until Mr. Mendez asked, “Have you been to Tehran in January? There’s snow on the ground.”

Stumped, Mr. Mendez came up with a seemingly preposterous but surprisingly plausible idea that went against the standard practice of crafting mundane, unassuming cover identities: He would disguise the six Americans as a film preproduction crew, scouting Iranian locations for a sci-fi blockbuster.

Who else but Hollywood types would be fearless — read: clueless — enough to traipse around Iran in the middle of a revolution stoked by anti-Western sentiment?

In “Argo,” Mr. Mendez’s character, portrayed by Ben Affleck, brainstorms the idea while watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” a nod to the CIA’s real-word relationship with Academy Award-winning makeup artist John Chambers, a friend of Mr. Mendez’s who later was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit.

To make the cover story plausible, Mr. Mendez and Mr. Chambers had to create a fake movie and production company. They set up an office in a space previously used by actor Michael Douglas during the filming of “The China Syndrome,” printed fake business cards, held a party at a Los Angeles nightclub and took out film ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

They also selected a script for a previously canceled film that was based on the science fiction novel “Lord of Light” and required Iran-like location shooting. Mr. Chambers suggested that they call the film “Argo,” like the mythical ship captained by Jason during his daring quest to obtain the Golden Fleece.

In the real film, characters use the catchphrase “Argo, [expletive] yourself” — a detail that Mr. Mendez said was true to life.

“We seriously used it many times as our battle cry,” Mr. Mendez said. “Sometimes in a tight spot, you break the tension by telling a joke.”

Reel life versus real life

In “Argo,” the scenes of the Mendez and Chambers characters — the latter played by John Goodman — setting up a phony film production in Los Angeles largely are played for laughs, particularly during a media event at the Beverly Hilton hotel in which actors in outlandish makeup and costumes read from a ludicrously hackneyed script.

Mr. Mendez said the reading never transpired in real life. Still, the fake film’s essential silliness proved important when Mr. Mendez arrived in Tehran and briefed the six Americans on their cover identities.

“It was very helpful to them,” Mr. Mendez said. “It broke the tension. They understood the seriousness of the situation, but it allowed them to be more nonchalant in their covers.”

Mr. Mendez spent nearly a week consulting with “Argo” screenwriter Chris Terrio. He also met with Mr. Affleck in Washington, taking the actor to spots where espionage moments occurred and discussing the inner life of a CIA operative.

While Mr. Mendez often says that the ideal spy resembles “the little gray man” in the back of the room — someone unmemorable and unremarkable — he felt the tall, handsome Mr. Affleck did a good job portraying him.

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