fact-checking argo: history vs. film

Argo came out almost exactly a year ago, and since I do everything in a timely manner, I picked it up from Redbox last night and watched it for the first time.

I loved it, which is unsurprising. History gets me giddy, and the Cold War is one of my favorite time periods to study. My parents grew up in Poland and Hungary from the 1960s to the 80s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions, so on one hand, my interest is a personal one, but the corruption of the U.S. government during that time is also fascinating. Watergate and Nixon make a great story, of course, but it’s impossible to ignore CIA’s astounding covert operations as they actively aided military coups to overthrow democratically-elected governments around the world, from Guatemala to Iran (hence, Argo).

For those who don’t know the story of the Iran Hostage Crisis on which the film is based, here’s an unfairly brief summary: In November 1979, 52 Americans were taken hostage from the U.S. Embassy in Iran by a group of Iranian students and militants. All of the hostages eventually returned home, but the last of them were held until January 1981. There’s no question that the taking of hostages was a serious violation of human rights, but in context, this incident is much more complex than Iran=evil and U.S.=good. The States had supported the rule of the recently overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and was now treating his health on American soil.  The Shah was happy to live lavishly while his people starved, were executed for no reason, and became destitute–and the U.S. had no problem with that, as long as they got their oil as cheap as possible. When the States would not hand the Shah over to be tried for his crimes, the Iranians responded by taking hostages.

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Argo deals with the first rescue of six Americans by way of C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez (played by non-Hispanic Ben Affleck) and the Canadian government. These Americans had barely managed to escape capture by the militants and were trapped in the Canadian Embassy in Iran (of course, if they stepped outside, they would be captured or shot by the Iranians as soon as they were recognized as Americans). Mendez concocted a radical plan: he created fake identities for the Americans as a parts of a Canadian film crew for a fake movie production, Argo, which is all very Wag the Dog. Except, you know, Argo was fake for a real purpose.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was actually in its postscript, when they showed photos of the real hostages and compared them to their fictional counterparts. Here’s one with President Carter:

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Kathleen & Joseph Stafford, Lee Schatz , President Carter, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lije, and Robert Anders.

I knew that Affleck had white-washed Tony Mendez’s character by casting himself in the role, but I noticed that Ms. Ambrun-Lijek wasn’t a white woman either.

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Nope, she’s definitely an Asian-American.

I wondered what other creative licenses Affleck took with history to create his film, and this is what I found (spoilers follow, but as it happens, I seem to have already told you the plot and conclusion of the movie with my historical context above).

1. In the film, the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and employee John Sheardown who housed the six Americans were portrayed as gracious hosts–as I’m sure they were–but in reality, played a much more involved role. Taylor actually telephoned D.C. to start the escape plan and begin the whole process. Plus, they “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets,” and “even coached the six in sounding Canadian.”

2. The climax of the movie depicts the American hostages and Mendez just barely escaping several obstacles as they lie to make it through airport security, and then their plane is chased by Iranian militants in police cars on the runway. In reality, Mendez has written that the trip through the airport was “as smooth as silk.”

3. The script behind the fake film Argo was thought of by make up artist John Chambers (played in the movie by John Goodman), and it was based on the science fiction novel Lord of Light by Robert Zelazny. Mendez decided that the script needed a knew name and suggested Argo, based on his favorite knock knock joke.

“Who’s there?”
“Argo.”
“Argo who?”
“Argo fuck yourself.”

The line made it into the film as a running gag, though with a different backstory. I now use it as my farewell message of choice when ending any conversation.

4. The fictional film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) was, indeed, the only major fictional character in the movie.

5. That whole Mendez-family-reconciliation storyline that added so much heart to the movie? That was fictional too. In reality, Mendez has two sons and daughter with his first wife, who passed away from cancer in 1986.

Despite these changes, as I said before, I enjoyed the film enormously. But it makes me wonder: how important is historical accuracy in film?

Research credit goes to Slate, NPR, and Screenrant.

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