Even though Argo starts off with text that says it’s based on a true story, the movie was actually based primarily on two sources: a book by Tony Mendez, the CIA agent Ben Affleck plays, and a 2007 article on Wired by Joshuah Bearman.
So how much of Argo is true? And how much of it was fictionalized for the film?
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The movie starts off as it sets the stage for the eventual rescue. According to the movie, this happens in 1979 when a mob of Iranians are enraged at the United States for granting asylum to the Shah. They wanted him to be returned to Iran to face trial. The mob eventually breaks through the gates, starting a hostage situation at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
This part of the movie is true.
After a power struggle in the 1950s, which both the U.S. and the U.K. helped him win, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi declared himself absolute monarch of Iran. He was an autocratic leader—a dictator. Over the years, the Iranian people grew increasingly displeased with his leadership. By 1978, official numbers showed Iran had over 2,000 political prisoners. We don’t know how many unofficial prisoners there were.
By 1979, Shah Pahlavi’s government was overthrown by revolution and he was forced into exile in Egypt. Then, President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to come to the United States for cancer treatments. This outraged many Iranians, who demanded the Shah be returned so he could stand trial. An up-and-coming politician, Ayatollah Khomeini, called for demonstrations in the streets as a response to the Shah entering the United States.
The movie makes the U.S. Embassy in Tehran takeover look relatively easy. In truth, the takeover at 6:30 a.m. on November 4th, 1979, the same date depicted in the movie, was the third attempt by Iranians loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. The first was in February, then September and finally about 400 students were briefed by a select few on a plan to take over the embassy. This time, it worked. When it did, they succeeded in taking 52 Americans hostage.
Although it’s only a mention, a point in the movie happens when the diplomats are trying to incinerate sensitive documents. When the furnace malfunctions, they instead have to start shredding documents. That comes into play later when the pieces are reconstructed.
That actually happened—the furnace malfunctioned and cheap shredders were used. And although it wasn’t children, the Iranians trying to find the diplomats employed carpet weavers to reconstruct the documents.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
As the hostages were blindfolded and bound, many of the embassy workers snuck out. Most were captured, but six managed to escape capture.
The six American diplomats were Robert Anders, played by Tate Donovan in the movie, Cora Lijek, played by Clea DuVall, Mark Lijek, played by Christopher Denham, Joseph Stafford, played by Scoot McNairy, Kathleen Stafford, played by Kerry Bishé, and Lee Schatz, played by Rory Cochrane.
The movie shows these six American diplomats holing up in the home of the Canadian Ambassador, and that did happen, although slightly differently.
In truth, these six were working in the consulate, a separate building on the embassy compound, so they were able to avoid the crowd as they swarmed the main building. There were two groups, these six making up one of those groups, that fled from the consulate, both heading toward the British Embassy. But there were Iranians who blocked their way, and one of the groups was caught and returned to the U.S. Embassy with the rest of the hostages.
The six in the group depicted in the movie first hid in the home of Robert Anders, Tate Donovan in the movie, since it was near the embassy. But they knew they couldn’t stay there long. For the next six days, they bounced from house to house, avoiding capture.
Three days into their hiding, they heard of the government’s collapse. This was the interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who had taken over after the revolution. When his government fell, the six American diplomats knew they wouldn’t be able to go back to the U.S. Embassy. This wasn’t something that would blow over quickly.
That’s when Robert Anders contacted one of his friends at the Canadian Embassy, John Sheardown, who eagerly welcomed the six. John contacted his colleague, Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, and the two split up the group.
Although the movie shows the six at the home of Ken Taylor, who’s played by Victor Garber, in truth two of them stayed at Ken Taylor’s home while three of them stayed with John Sheardown at his home. The last in the group, Lee Schatz, stayed at the Swedish Embassy for two weeks before joining the group at the Taylor’s home.
After harboring the group, Ken contacted his bosses back at the Canadian government to ask for help. While everyone obviously knew about the hostages being held publicly, it didn’t take long for the United States to find out that there were six American citizens needing assistance on a more secretive level in Tehran.
In the movie, that’s when the CIA’s Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, comes in. He claims to be an exfiltration specialist.
This part is true, although Tony was actually an artist whose career with the CIA started when he answered an ad for a job as a graphic artist. His specialty was forging documents and creating disguises, and by the time he was called on to extract the six from Tehran, he was the head of the CIA’s Graphics and Authentication Division. Tony was in charge of creating cover stories for foreign agents.
Needless to say, the job didn’t fit the title.
One of the biggest inaccuracies in the movie is how little the movie portrays the Canadian involvement. Sure, the six diplomats are at Ken Taylor’s home, but in the movie he seems more like a glorified host than anything else.
In truth, Ken played a massive role in the escape of the six Americans. Although most of the specific details are still classified, we know Ken was actively spying for the U.S. throughout the whole situation.
Tony worked closely with the Canadian government, and it was them who forwarded all of the necessary documentation—passports and more—to Ken at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran.
Of course, the major premise in the movie is that the escape itself was only possible by roping in Hollywood to make a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. Tony, or Ben Affleck, would then fly to Tehran and return with the six American diplomats, using the documentation they sent ahead of time to let them pose as Canadian filmmakers.
While some of the details are a little off, the overarching plot is true.
The basic plan for the escape was to pose the six as a Hollywood crew scouting out movie locations. Tony roped in his friend John Chambers, who’s played by John Goodman in the movie, to help with the Hollywood side of things. John was a makeup artist who had worked on such films as Planet of the Apes, Halloween, Star Trek, and after these events, Blade Runner and more.
In the movie, it’s Ben Affleck’s character who discovers a script called Argo and pitches it to the rest of the team.
That’s not really how it happened. It was John who suggested they use a script they’d created based on Roger Zelazny’s sci-fi novel Lord of Light. The original idea was to just use the same name, but Tony thought they should change it.
Tony decided to change it to something based on one of his favorite knock-knock jokes. According to Tony:
“A drunk comes along.
“Arr, go fuck yourself.”
Despite being a very serious mission, the experienced Tony, who’d no doubt come up with plenty of covers in his time, obviously had some fun with it. The name of the fake movie was based on a joke and the fake studio they created was called Studio Six, as there were six American diplomats they were trying to rescue.
Another inaccuracy in the movie comes with Alan Arkin’s character, Lester Siegel. There was no real Lester Siegel, but this character was intended to be an amalgamation of Hollywood by combining many of the people who worked on the fake movie. Some of these included Barry Ira Geller, Buckminster Fuller, Paolo Soleri and legends Ray Bradbury and Jack Kirby.
Bradbury, of course, being the legendary sci-fi author behind such hits as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and It Came From Outer Space.
Kirby being the comic book artist behind such hits as Captain America, X-Men, Thor, Fantastic Four, and many more. In the movie you actually get a chance to see some of the storyboards, but they’re certainly quite different in the movie than the ones Jack Kirby made for the real…fake movie, Argo.
Another primary participant in the cover-up was one of John’s friends, Robert Sidell. He was the big name they attached to the fake film as a producer. Like John, Robert was a makeup artist who had a successful career of his own having worked on The Waltons, The Love Boat and after this would go onto work on Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
The movie shows a fake office and fake business cards that Tony hands to the Iranian airport security.
This is all true. Tony and John both worked to establish an office on Sunset Blvd., in Hollywood. It was actually in the same office that actor Michael Douglas used in his 1979 film, The China Syndrome. They had business cards made up for the production company, took out ads in various magazines and even held a party for the film.
As far as anyone could tell, the movie was real.
To keep the scheme seeming legitimate, in the movie Tony suggests getting the press involved. That’s how you’ll know it’s real, by letting the press spread the news.
This happened, too. In the January 1980 edition of the popular magazine, Hollywood Reporter, there was an article about the film. It claimed two makeup artists, John Chambers and Robert Sidell, were now turning to producing.
Everything seemed to be set up. The fake movie was a real. Or…it was real enough for anyone outside the circle of those who need to know.
In the movie, as Ben Affleck and his team are building the fake movie, the Iranians are starting to put together that there are people missing from the hostages. They start putting together the strips of shredded papers to find out who is missing.
And as we already learned, that happened when they put carpet weavers to work to piece together shredded documents.
Everything in the movie starts to come to a dramatic climax when the group makes their way to the airport. It starts when they first arrive, and there’s no record of their tickets. They have no reservations. In the movie, this happened because the U.S. government decided to abort the mission. But because they were already underway, President Carter had to scramble to re-authorize the mission.
That didn’t happen.
In truth, it didn’t have anything to do with the U.S. government. It was the Canadian government who had already purchased tickets for the entire group, so they were able to get the tickets without any problem.
After this close call in the movie, there’s another heightened moment of tension when they reach security. The security guard is skeptical of their story. He digs through the records, trying to find the original copy of the carbon copy they’ve given him. Of course, it’s a forged document, but the security guard doesn’t know that. As they’re doing this, the shredded documents start to come together and the Iranian government starts to connect that the group at the airport is the American diplomats they’ve been trying to find.
Of course, since it’s 1980, technology is a little slower.
Back at the airport, the group is about to be rejected when the fake film’s director, Bob, played by Tate Donovan, remembers he has a letter from the Ministry of Culture. This is enough for the security guard, who lets them pass.
All of that…didn’t happen.
In reality, there wasn’t a lot of issues at the airport. A lot of that was owed to something they never even covered in the movie, that the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, had been casing the airport while the six stayed at his home to figure out their procedures. Because of Ken’s prep-work, they were able to devise a plan to make sure they’d be able to get through.
That’s not to say it was an easy situation. There was plenty of tension as the Canadian Embassy received some suspicious phone calls while the group was staying there. These calls made everyone on edge, and this uneasiness wasn’t made any easier when they made their way to the airport. Prep-work or no prep-work, when you’re trying to sneak out of a country that wants to take you prisoner—or worse—that has to be tense.
The final tier of security in the movie is the most difficult as all six in the group are directed out of the normal line and into a private room. Here we learn that Joseph Stafford can speak Farsi as he breaks silence to explain their group’s cover story. He shows storyboards, explains the script and all-in-all risks everyone’s life by making it plain he can speak Farsi.
The guard goes back to his office where he calls the number on the fake business card, which of course John Goodman’s version of John Chambers answers just in the nick of time, and the guard happens to see an ad for Argo in the newspaper.
This also didn’t happen. It was early in the morning on Sunday, January 27th, 1980, when the six American diplomats, Tony and someone we’ve only ever known as “Julio” made their way to the airport. Julio was never in the movie, and we don’t even know his real name—but he was a member of the CIA who joined Tony on the trip. We only know about him from Tony’s explanation of the mission.
While it was most certainly an incredibly tense situation, according to the real Tony Mendez, the trip through the airport went smoothly. To be more accurate, in Tony’s book he calls it “smooth as silk”.
In truth, the group made it through security without a problem. The only hold-up they encountered was because of a mechanical problem for Swiss Air flight 363. But that was sorted quickly, and the eight boarded and were on their way to Zürich, Switzerland.
Of course, smooth as silk doesn’t make for good Hollywood intrigue, so it makes sense why they changed it for the movie.
The final scene in the movie shows the Iranian government, who had pieced together the shredded paper to reveal a photo of Mark Lijek, Christopher Denhem’s character, and are racing down the runway to try to stop the plane. They don’t make it in time, but there’s still the chance the plane could be turned around.
Ben Affleck and his team can finally breathe a sigh of relief when their Swiss Air flight indicates they can serve alcohol now that they’ve left Iranian airspace.
That whole scene with the cars running down the plane on the tarmac didn’t happen. The real story was that when they boarded the plane, they had an uneventful flight to Zürich. After they landed, the six diplomats stayed at a CIA safe house. Then they were moved to Florida, where the CIA kept them secret until the hostage situation with the rest of the people at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was settled. So essentially they weren’t allowed to leave the Canadian Ambassador’s home in Tehran for 79 days, then when they finally left they weren’t allowed to leave a safe house in Florida until the hostage situation in Iran was settled.
And that didn’t happen for a while.
On April 24th and 25th, President Jimmy Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw, which was an attempt to rescue the remaining 52 staff held captive. It was one of the very first missions for Delta Force, and was a disastrous failure that started with three of the eight helicopters sent for the mission having technical problems. The remaining five still tried to carry out the mission, but one of the choppers crashed into a transportation airplane killing eight people.
Later, President Carter would blame Operation Eagle Claw as the reason why he didn’t win re-election in 1980. He was defeated by Ronald Reagan. Negotiations between the United States and Iran eventually resulted in what would be called the Algiers Accords, and in exchange for Iran’s immediate release of the hostages, $7.9 billion in Iranian assets would be unfrozen as well as immunity from any lawsuits Iran may have faced in America for the hostage situation. Additionally, the United States was forced to pledge that, “it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs”. And lastly, Iran placed $1 billion into an escrow account to help satisfy claims that American businesses had lost assets over the duration of the hostage takeover.
Four hundred and forty-four days after they were captured, all of the hostages were released on January 20th, 1981. It was coincidentally President Jimmy Carter’s last day in office.
As is to be expected, relations between the United States and Iran suffered greatly because of this ordeal. Still, the details of the event were largely forgotten by the public over the decades. And there have been numerous hostage cases since then. But while the public may have moved on, the two governments have not and it’s still something that’s being debated by the two countries to this day.
On August 5th, 2016, TV in Iran broadcast pallets of cash—$400 million—that it claimed was a ransom for freeing several U.S. hostages. President Obama denied these claims, saying the fact that U.S. hostages were released by Iran on the same day the $400 million was handed over is merely coincidence. According to the United States government, this was the first installment in a $1.7 billion agreement resolving claims at an international tribunal to settle an arms dispute from 1979, just before the hostage situation at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.