The way any story that is based on an historical event is viewed, like everything in life, comes down to the perspective of the person who actually is doing the viewing.
If you have any doubts, you need look no further than the reception the film “Argo” received in the weeks leading up to and in the days after last Sunday’s Academy Awards were presented.
Here’s what everyone can agree on: the film is a dramatization of the rescue from Tehran of six Americans who had managed to escape when the U.S. embassy in Iran fell on Nov. 4, 1979.
The six were sheltered by the Canadians until they could be exfiltrated from Iran in January 1980. They left Iran under the cover of working on a film crew that was scouting shooting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.”
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” was certainly worthy of the best picture Oscar. It’s a thriller with just enough humor to keep audiences engaged for its entire two-hour run. By the end of the film, you’re proud to be an American, and why not? It has a little of everything we love – it’s a spy story, it’s a story about success against all odds, it’s a story about the American courage from the days of the wild west – that a CIA agent would dare to take the six out of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport by having them board a commercial airliner under the watchful eyes of the Iranians.
It’s a story well told, and the film definitely earned its Oscar for film editing.
The movie is based on the work of Antonio Mendez, a 25-year veteran of the CIA who actually directed the operation to rescue the six. He was able to detail the story only after the operation was declassified. Mendez himself described the work in his book “Master of Disguise,” and the story was the subject of Joshuah Bearman’s article, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” that appeared in the April 24, 2007, edition of Wired magazine.
Mendez, who will speak in the Steubenville High School auditorium on April 9 as part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series, provided a more detailed account of his life, his work as a CIA agent and the rescue of the six in the book “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.”
That information was so skillfully weaved into the script for the real “Argo” that Chris Terrio was honored with the Oscar for the best adapted screenplay.
Affleck, who portrayed Mendez, is proving to be a master of his craft, and it’s tough to understand how he missed out on at least a nomination as the best director. The film itself shows traits that are common to any adaptation: some characters are combined and some are eliminated altogether; some dialogue is faithfully reproduced and some is created; some scenes are created for dramatic effect, and there is great drama added to other situations that make them seem even more perilous than they actually were.
Things get a little more tricky, though, when you are using a real story for the basis of the film – and it’s also where perspective really comes into play. While we Americans were ready to cheer the exploits of the CIA in the film, a Canadian named Ken Taylor felt a little slighted.
Taylor is in a position to know what he is speaking about – he was the Canadian ambassador in Tehran who joined with John Sheardown, the embassy’s first secretary, to protect the “houseguests,” as the six were called.
Taylor was rankled by the film because it portrayed the rescue as being a total CIA operation, when in fact, as Mendez points out in his books, it was unprecedented cooperation between the CIA and the powers that be in Ottawa that made the rescue possible. Taylor, by the way, was joined in his concerns by another political heavyweight, Jimmy Carter, who was president during the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter has credited 90 percent of the plan to the Canadians.
Affleck, for his part, did acknowledge Canada for its role in the operation during last Sunday’s acceptance speech.
And what about the Iranians? Well, it’s that perspective thing again. State TV in Iran said “Argo” was “an advertisement for the CIA,” according to The Associated Press. And, the semiofficial Mehr news agency said the Oscar win for “Argo” was “politically motivated,” pointing out that first lady Michelle Obama teamed with Jack Nicholson by video to present the award.
Whatever your perspective, however, I’m very confident there’s only one conclusion to come to after seeing the movie and reading Mendez’s books – and that’s he’s a real American hero, a man who’s worthy of all the accolades he earned while in the employ of the CIA. It took all of the skills he had honed working around the world, from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the streets of Moscow, to pull off the rescue of the six.
It’s a story worth hearing, and one he will be sharing with residents of the Tri-State Area during his April 9 appearance in Steubenville.
(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)