Movies
10:28 am
Wed December 26, 2012

Fact Checking 'Argo': A Great Escape That Takes Some Leaps

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 1:06 pm

Several of the films contending for top prizes this year have one thing in common: They all say they're inspired by true events.

Among them are Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Hitchcock and Ben Affleck's Argo, which chronicles a covert operation that involved creating a fake Hollywood film to rescue six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis. (The Americans posed as the picture's production crew to escape the country.)

The events of Argo are so over-the top that you have to wonder how much of it is true, and how much was simply inspired by real events. So this week, we're looking into the real stories behind some of these films, not to detract from their dramatic or entertainment value, but to supplement drama with some history.

Matt Baglio co-authored the book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History along with Tony Mendez, the CIA operative, played by Affleck, who made it happen. Baglio joins NPR's Robert Siegel to help give the film dramatization some perspective.


Interview Highlights

On the veracity of the fake film story

"Surprisingly, this is one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction. Tony knew right away that this particular operation was going to require something special. And through his partnership with [Hollywood makeup artist] John Chambers, he was able to go out to Hollywood, set up a fake production company, put an ad in the Hollywood Reporter [and] the Daily Variety, and then went into Iran and rescued these six Americans pretty much just as it's portrayed in the film."

On the truth behind the six American's skeptical reaction to Mendez's plan

"You've got six people here, they've been in Iran for three months hiding out. And you've got an individual, Tony, [who] comes in — he had a partner with him in real life — meeting with them saying, 'We're going to get you out and here are the plans on the table.' I think for all of them it took a second or two to digest what he was saying. I mean imagine you don't know who this individual is. Here he is saying there's a fake production company; there's actually Hollywood insiders staffing it in Los Angeles; these are your roles; you need to get into these roles because your life could depend on it."

On who the fake film story was really intended for

"I think one of the aspects of why the Argo operation was so successful is that the audience wasn't really the Iranian government; he was really coming up with this ruse, so to speak, to convince the six Americans that they could pull this off. Because what he wanted was that they were going to go through the airport with the confidence, you know, without looking suspicious. And when you have six untrained professionals who've never done this before, Tony, who had done this before, he knew that he had to come up with this idea that could make them feel comfortable, that could make them get engaged in this scenario. And he realized that Hollywood was the perfect choice, because everyone could kind of imagine what a Hollywood insider was like. ...

"The ruse was there in case the Iranians stopped them. They had a business card, they had an actual working phone number and the office was staffed in Los Angeles."

On whether the Iranians ever called the fake production company to check the story out

"No, they didn't do that."

On the airport chase at the end of the film

"There were some tense moments in the airport. There were some times when [the Americans'] documents were inspected, and there were some questions about photos, their flight was delayed. I think the film was very truthful. ... There wasn't this chase, as is portrayed in the film ... but it captures the tension. I think it's very truthful in the sense that when you're making a movie in a cinematic way you need to portray the inner tension that these people were dealing with. Audiences aren't going to be satisfied with checking documents. One of the fascinating aspects of the real world of espionage is that it's really all about the details. And there can be a lot of drama in a guy checking a cache or an ink, the quality of a paper or a document, but that's just not going to translate very well on the big screen. So you've got to look for ways to engage the audience."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Inspired by true events, that's the claim made by several movies right now vying for top film awards. "Lincoln" shows the 16th president's struggle to abolish slavery; "Zero Dark Thirty," the hunt to kill Osama bin Laden; and this film, "Argo," which chronicles a covert operation, creating a fake Hollywood film to rescue six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I need you to help me make a fake movie.

JOHN GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) You came to the right place.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I want to set up a production company and build a cover around making a movie.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) That we're not going to make?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) No.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Yeah.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Without actually doing anything?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) No.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) You'll fit right in.

SIEGEL: That's John Goodman along with Ben Affleck, who plays real-life CIA officer Tony Mendez. Goodman portrays Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, also a real-life person, now deceased. The idea was the Americans would leave Iran posing as the crew of the phony movie. The events of "Argo" are so over the top that you have to wonder how much of it is true versus inspired. And this week, we have been truth-squadding some of these true-event movies, not to detract from their dramatic or entertainment value, but to supplement drama with some history. And today, it's "Argo."

Joining me is Matt Baglio. He co-wrote the book "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History." Welcome.

MATT BAGLIO: Hi, Robert. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: We should say your co-author on the book is Antonio Mendez, the CIA officer played by Ben Affleck in the film. So, first of all, how do you think Affleck did in capturing Mendez?

BAGLIO: You know, he did a really good job. I mean, Mendez is a very particular guy. He's very taciturn. Like most spies, he keeps his cards very close to his chest. I spent some time with him and so did Ben. They went around Washington together, and I think Ben did a good job.

SIEGEL: As we heard in that clip, Mendez is seen going to Hollywood, enlisting help to make this film seem very real. He gets a script. They come up with fake posters, take out ads in Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Is all that true?

BAGLIO: It is. Surprisingly, this is one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction. Tony knew right away that this particular operation was going to require something special. And through his partnership with John Chambers, he was able to go out to Hollywood, set up a fake production company, put an ad in the Hollywood Reporter, the Daily Variety, and then went into Iran and rescued these six Americans pretty much just as it's portrayed in the film.

SIEGEL: OK. Here's another clip now. This is when Tony Mendez, after having gone to Hollywood, goes to Tehran, meets up with the Americans, and he gives them their fake back stories as this Hollywood film crew. It's a tense moment as the Americans worry that they can't pull the ruse off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What was the last movie you produced?

SCOOT MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) "High and Dry."

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who paid for that?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) The CFDC.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name? What's your middle name? What's your middle name?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) Leon.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Shoot him. He's an American spy. Look, they're going to try to break you, OK, by trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume back to front.

RORY COCHRANE: (as Lee Schatz) You really believe your little story is going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I think my story is the only thing between you and a gun to your head.

SIEGEL: Now, Matt Baglio, did they have real reservations, those sort of reservations about the plan?

BAGLIO: Well, definitely. I mean, you've got six people here, they've been in Iran for three months hiding out, and you've got an individual, Tony, comes in - he had a partner with him in real life - meeting with them saying: We're going to get you out, and here are the plans on the table. I think for all of them, it took a second or two to digest what he was saying. I mean, imagine you don't know who this individual is. Here he is saying there's a fake production company, there's actual Hollywood insiders staffing it in Los Angeles; these are your roles.

And I think one of the aspects of why the Argo operation was so successful is that the audience wasn't really the Iranian government; he was really coming up with this ruse, so to speak, to convince the six Americans that they could pull this off. Because what he wanted was that they were going to go through the airport with the confidence, you know, without looking suspicious. And when you have six untrained professionals who've never done this before, Tony, who had done this before, he knew that he had to come up with this idea that could make them feel comfortable, that could make them get engaged in this scenario. And he realized that Hollywood was the perfect choice, because everyone could kind of imagine what a Hollywood insider was like.

SIEGEL: But I'm hearing you say that angle to Mendez's motive, just to give them a way to feel confident exiting through the airport, that's perhaps a little bit underplayed here in the movie in favor of putting one over on the Iranians.

BAGLIO: Well, for sure, the ruse was there in case the Iranians stop them. They had a business card, they had an actual working phone number, and the office was staffed in Los Angeles in real life. Bob Sidell was the individual, along with his wife, Andi Sidell, who were in the office actually taking calls from other people in L.A., which is very funny.

SIEGEL: In truth, did any Iranian actually call up the movie company in Hollywood to check up on these people's identities?

BAGLIO: No, they didn't do that. There were some tense moments in the airport. There were some times when their documents were inspected, and there were some questions about photos, their flight was delayed. I think the film was very truthful in the sense that there wasn't this chase, as is portrayed in the film. However...

SIEGEL: The film, we should say, ends with a big airport chase with Iranian cops who figured out that this is a scam but too late.

BAGLIO: Right. But it captures the tension. I think it's very truthful in the sense that when you're making a movie in a cinematic way, you need to portray the inner tension that these people were dealing with. And audiences aren't going to be satisfied with, you know, checking documents in these kind of things. I mean, one of the fascinating aspects of the real world of espionage is that it's really all about the details, and there can be a lot of drama in a guy checking a cache or an ink, the quality of a paper or a document, but that's just not going to translate very well on the big screen. So you've got to look for ways to engage the audience.

SIEGEL: Since the film has come out, there have been some complaints that "Argo" celebrates the CIA's role at the expense of the role of the Canadians, whose embassy in Tehran sheltered these six Americans. What do you think of that?

BAGLIO: Well, you know, it's a complex story, and I think that if they had more time, you know, you could have done a more involved story. But if anything, you could say perhaps there were some sins of omission. They had to condense a lot, and there were a few Canadians - John Sheardown is one - who really was instrumental in helping the Americans. But as the author of a book, knowing all the research that goes into the real story, I think they did a pretty good job of capturing all the real elements.

SIEGEL: Matt Baglio, thank you very much for talking with us.

BAGLIO: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Matt Baglio co-wrote the book "Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History." He wrote it along with former CIA officer Antonio Mendez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: And tomorrow, our final fact check, a movie about FDR. Is it true to life?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The movie has it upside-down. He is seen doing all kinds of things in the film, which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself. He couldn't walk with two canes, which he does in a particularly silly scene.

SIEGEL: A historian's take on "Hyde Park on Hudson" tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.