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‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History’ & ‘Argo’

February 13, 2013 Leave a comment

‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History’

by Anthony Mendez with Matt Baglio

‘Argo’

Screenplay by Chris Terrio; Directed by Ben Affleck; Produced by George Clooney

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History’ was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.

It is true that six Americans, employed at the US Embassy in Iran, were ‘exfiltrated’ by the CIA in 1981. It is true that this happened at the same time as 52 other Americans were being held hostage in the Embassy. And it is true that Anthony Mendez, a CIA employee, led the exfiltration mission. Thirty years after the fact, Ben Affleck and Anthony Mendez have presented differing versions of these truths.

The story of how the six Americans were rescued has been told before, most notably in a 1981 TV movie called ‘Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper,’ but because Mendez’ role in the operation was classified until 1997 he was not, until recently, permitted to tell it himself. Readers of the book he has written with Baglio may wish it had stayed that way.

Mendez and Baglio have taken a bizarre approach to the narrative. It is written in the first person, from Mendez’ point of view, yet Mendez didn’t witness directly the events that occur in much of the book, either in Iran or the USA. Despite this, the narrative is presented as if Mendez were present when they happened. This is particularly odd in the sections of the book that deal with events in Iran in the early stages of the crisis, including detailed and mundane dialogue about what the hostages had for dinner, what they were wearing, and the arguments they had. It seems Mendez and Baglio believe that by showing us chunks of the story in this way, they can make it more convincing, but what this clumsy technique actually does is make the reader question its veracity.

We know from the acknowledgements in the book that Baglio interviewed many of the people involved, presumably a considerable time after the crisis. The best description, then, of what is going on is that it is a ‘reconstruction,’ a retelling of events not witnessed by either Baglio or Mendez. Although presented as a truthful account of what happened, it must be a semi-fictional version of the truth; half of it imagined and pieced together third-hand by Mendez and Baglio; the other half Mendez’ recollection of the events he was directly involved in. Even then, Mendez is not telling the story himself; Baglio is telling it on his behalf. Do we really believe that the people who lived through this crisis would tell the whole truth to a journalist about how they felt and behaved when they thought they would die, even if they could remember, even if they hadn’t blocked out and tried to forget that terrifying experience? Of course not.

This puts an interesting perspective on Affleck’s movie. If Mendez’ and Baglio’s book includes details neither men observed, told by a retired spy and a journalist, how confident can we be that is it any more truthful than Affleck’s version? It presumably is more accurate, but it is also less coherent, less convincing, and a much less well told story than the movie.

In Mendez’ ‘truthful’ version of Argo there is no famous Hollywood producer, no script read-through in costume, no witty dialogue about the movie industry, no emotional reconciliation with an estranged wife and daughter (Mendez and his wife are not separated, so there can’t be,) no solitary CIA agent flying to the rescue, no last minute approval by the President, and certainly no Iranian police chasing the plane down the tarmac. Instead there is page after page of CIA logistics and inconsistent explanations of acronyms, a good deal of Mendez’ previous work and success, many colleagues who do lots of the legwork, and plenty of dull, careful preparation.

I found it very difficult to wade through Mendez’ and Baglio’s book. In contrast, I willingly saw Affleck’s movie twice, the first time at the Arclight cinema in the heart of Hollywood, the second time in Wellywood with my family. Watching a film about Hollywood, in Hollywood, surrounded by Hollywood people was one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had at the movies. Not a single in-joke was missed by that audience. Chris Terrio and Ben Affleck have done an outstanding job of turning this story into a compelling three act experience. Most people who see the film will already know what happens in the end, and to successfully create edge-of-your seat tension in such circumstances is a great achievement.

In stark contrast Mendez and Baglio don’t get to the third act – the actual escape from Iran – until the final few pages of their book. Even a ‘true’ story needs to be told with structure, with dramatic tension and the right amount of detail. Mendez might have done better enlisting someone who understands that to tell his version.

Knowing what to leave out and what to leave in, knowing when to go into detail and when to move on, and rewarding the reader with payoffs and emotional engagement are the bread and butter of Hollywood. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the Hollywood professionals did a better job of telling this story – albeit with a significant number of embellishments – than Mendez and Baglio. I have no doubt that with the addition of some professional story-telling expertise the ‘true’ version of Argo could have been told, if not quite as compellingly as Affleck’s movie, so much better than Mendez and Baglio’s effort.

Postscript: Affleck won best director for Argo at the 2013 BAFTA awards, and Argo picked up the award for best film. In his acceptance speech, Affleck – who won an Oscar with Matt Damon for his script for ‘Good Will Hunting’ – said Chris Terrio’s script for Argo was the best he’d ever seen.

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