One of the best films of 2012 was Argo. For those who’ve seen it, you know; for those who haven’t, do yourself the favour. Aside from the fact that director and star Ben Affleck has a real gift for film-craft, Argo is one of the most engrossing “based-on” true stories you’re likely to find. It’s the account of “The Canadian Caper”, a joint effort of the Canadian government and the Central Intelligence Agency to covertly sneak six American consulate staff out of Iran after a coup in 1979 saw militants seize control and hold the entire embassy hostage. Six of the staff had slipped past the angry mob and found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. The operation to rescue them was headed by operative Tony Mendez, a 25 year veteran of the CIA who is notable for having never failed to exfiltrate an ally from hostile territory, being one of the five most important officers of all time and looking absolutely nothing like Ben Affleck.
Mendez became a legend not just for his involvement in the Terhan rescue, but for a career which was marked by life-affirming positivity. It is, in fact, remarkable that Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Mendez in the film somewhat betrays the man’s true nature and legacy (that’s not a dig at Affleck by the way, who plays a great part in a great film). Where much public impression of ‘The Agency’ focuses on the idea of conspiracy, terrible foreign policy, assasinations and other manner of clandestine nefariousness, Mendez was a man whose work – while undoubtedly unpopular with countries at odds with the USA – was all about saving lives.
Prior to his recruitment, Tony Medez found work as an artist and illustrator – a passion that he has continued through his reportedly great painted landscapes. It was these skills that made his a valuable asset, as in 1965 the CIA was entering an era in which counterfeiting was making a big comeback. His early years were spent over desks, endlessly reproducing foreign documents, generating passports and travel papers for the express purpose of sneaking into unfriendly countries, finding friendly people, and getting back home without anyone being the wiser until it was all over.
After some close calls in the field, Mendez began to think that perhaps the agency could do better. He began to experiment in the mirror with basic elements of disguise, and encouraged others to do the same. Eventually he developed a basic kit which could be easily concealed for transport, and would offer an extra layer of security to those in need of ‘exfiltration’. In researching and developing these kits, Mendez made the acquaintance of John Chambers, a like-minded pioneer in makeup and prosthetics in Hollywood. It was here that the first partnership between the CIA and the Movies began.
Mendez progressed as an agency operative because his breakthroughs allowed ally after ally to slip out of the Soviet Union. Another pioneering initiative of his was the development of drop spots, where allies courageous enough to remain behind the iron curtain could leave their information and reports to be retrieved with relative ease by ‘non official cover’ operatives.
Though having never failed to retrieve an ‘asset’, nor ever being captured and detained while on assignment himself, Mendez had a recurring nightmare stemming from his first overseas operation. After seeing his asset safely squared away on a flight, his phone call to report mission status goes unanswered, leaving him with the fearful sense that he has been discovered. In reality that first operation went off without a hitch, nonetheless the nightmare followed him for many years and many rescues.
Of course it was never a given that he would come home. Mendez and his wife, Jonna, developed a farewell tradition where, upon leaving for an exfiltration, the last thing he would do was turn to his wife, remove his wedding ring, and place it in her hands for safe keeping.
Tony and Jonna Mendez
One of the interesting aspects Argo as an adaptation of the true story – and of Mendez as a true personality – are these personal touches which screenwriters Chris Terrio and Joshua Bearman chose to discard, or even replace with something decidedly more “Hollywood”. Affleck’s Mendez is not the devoted family man, home builder and compassionate rescuer, but rather the emotionally unavailable, humorless sad sack who is separated, and struggling to maintain a relationship with his son. Elements of the caper itself were also inexplicably altered for the film, not the least of which being the suggestion that the six refugees were turned away by the British and New Zealand consulates, when in fact the UK did offer shelter for as long as was safe.
It is curious that of all the changes made, the one that caused any sense of ire amongst cinema goers was the ‘white-washing’ of Mendez. While it is perfectly true that Mexican actors are fairly under-represented in film, Mendez himself, whose father was Mexican but died while he was an infant, stated that he personally had no problem with Affleck. “I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert”, with his Italian/French/Irish mother.
Tony Mendez with President Jimmy Carter…still looking nothing like Ben Affleck
Honestly, Mendez tells his story so much better in his own words. He recounts his career in Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (1999), and zeroes in on the events recounted in Argo in the book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (2012). Both are brilliant reads, and well worth tracking down. Of course, if you find yourself a little strapped for time, you can more or less get the essential beats from the film. That’s Argo (2012), not Argo (2004) the Hungarian film about gun-toting treasure-hunters.
or the greatest fake sci-fi film ever