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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

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The situation was dire. Unbearably tense. Three months after the late-1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries, six American diplomats who had secretly escaped the compound were attempting to flee the country.

Through the capital city's airport.

Disguised as a flashy, oblivious Hollywood film crew.

Led by an undercover Central Intelligence Agency officer.

The building was crawling with Iranian security, both regular Mehrabad International Airport police and militants from the Revolutionary Guard. Foreigners were viewed with intense suspicion. Discovery and capture would have been an international fiasco — at best, the Americans would rejoin the rest of the embassy's staff who were being held hostage; at worst, they would be killed.

As the group's airplane idled on the windy tarmac, the CIA officer felt a familiar pit in his stomach: Did I miss something? Have I blown cover?

As he watched a dramatic re-creation of that moment during a recent screening of the new film "Argo," he felt the uneasiness all over again.

"Oh, absolutely, it brought back the emotions," said Tony Mendez, a retired disguise specialist in the CIA's office of technical service. "I went to screenings in [Los Angeles] and Toronto, and it was just like being there again. Both times.

"There's nothing so final as 'Wheels up.' [On missions], we always were waiting for that wheels-up feeling before we broke out the Bloody Marys."

Unbelievable but true

Based on a top-secret, too-unbelievable-to-be-true story that went largely unrevealed until the CIA declassified some of its role in the caper in the late 1990s, "Argo" recounts how the United States and Canada hid and then sneaked the six diplomats out of Iran during the 444-day hostage crisis.

Much of the planning and execution of the escape fell to Mr. Mendez, who served in the agency for a quarter-century and traveled to Russia, Vietnam and places he can't reveal while specializing in cover identities and "exfiltration" missions — in other words, getting friendly assets out of hostile environments.

Few environments were as hostile to Americans as revolutionary Iran, where real and perceived enemies of the uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were hanged from construction cranes in the streets of Tehran.

With the American diplomats hiding out in a pair of safe houses — specifically, the residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and diplomat John Sheardown — the rescue effort faced a ticking clock. The Iranians had been examining embassy records, using teams of carpet weavers to reassemble shredded documents, attempting to identify CIA officers.

They likely would realize eventually that six employees were unaccounted for.

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.

"Nobody is good-looking enough to play me," Mr. Mendez said with a laugh. "But really, he did a fine job. A lot of the things I told him he took to heart. Especially those moments where you have concern, those 15 seconds of reviewing your plan internally.

"Your gut tells you if it's going to be OK or not — and if you ignore that, you probably will get into trouble. I saw Ben do that on the screen. The audience just sees him not talking, but I knew exactly what he was doing."

Like many movies based on actual events, "Argo" takes a number of dramatic liberties. In the film, the rescue mission is called off the night before the six Americans leave Iran; the group makes a nerve-wracking, in-disguise visit to a crowded and noisy Tehran bazaar; Iranian police cars and a truck full of rifle-wielding militants chase the getaway plane on the tarmac.

Though those scenes make "Argo" more suspenseful, that kind of action didn't happen. In the film, Mr. Mendez has a single son, while in real life, Mr. Mendez had three children: Ian, Toby and Amanda.

In an early draft of the script, the son of Mr. Mendez's character was named "Michael."

"When I got the script, I called Toby and Amanda in and said, 'Well, they wrote you out of your own life — how do you feel about that?' " Mr. Mendez said. "They said that was OK. But who in the hell is Michael?

"So we went back and asked if Michael's name could be changed to Ian, since Ian had passed away a couple of years ago. Ben Affleck agreed to do that."

In the film's final scene, Mr. Affleck's character hugs his son in the boy's bedroom.

"Those pictures in the bedroom on the nightstand were of the real Ian," Mr. Mendez said. "And at the end of the movie, it says, 'In memoriam Ian Mendez.' That was amazing."

Belated recognition

Mr. Mendez always thought that the real-life caper would make a much better movie than the epic drama. Still, he figured that the CIA's involvement in the rescue forever would remain classified: After all, he received the agency's highest honor, the Intelligence Star, for his work, but couldn't keep the award because the mission was secret.

That changed in 1997. As part of the CIA's 50th anniversary celebration, Director George J. Tenet honored 50 "Trailblazers," people whose extraordinary intelligence work stood out.

Mr. Mendez's name was on the list. To his surprise, the agency didn't want to just honor him at a ceremony at CIA headquarters — it wanted him to go public and tell the world about the rescue in Iran.

Mr. Mendez first recounted some of the story in a television interview with Dan Rather and an autobiographical book titled "The Master of Disguise." He reveals more details in the book "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History," with Matt Baglio as the co-writer.

Mr. Mendez's award is displayed at the International Spy Museum in Washington. Meanwhile, "Argo's" release has served as a kind of belated victory lap: After a recent preview screening in Los Angeles, Mr. Affleck addressed the audience and dedicated the film to Mr. Mendez.

"I was in the middle of the audience, and Ben asked me to stand up," Mr. Mendez said. "People were applauding even harder. It was kind of awkward having a huge crowd applaud you on and on. You wonder what you are supposed to be doing."

Also attending the screening was Bob Anders, one of the six American "houseguests." Mr. Anders and Mr. Mendez subsequently took the same flight from Los Angeles to Washington, where the Canadian Embassy and the Spy Museum are hosting "Argo" events this week.

As their airplane taxied on the runway, Mr. Anders approached Mr. Mendez.

"He said, 'The last time I went to the airport with you, you know what happened,' " Mr. Mendez said. "I said, 'Yeah, we brought the Bloody Marys out.' So we ordered them as we were taking off."

Mr. Mendez laughed.

"He saluted me with a Bloody Mary," he said. "And I yelled, 'Argo!' "

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