The CIA, in the Hollywood imagination. Published on January 15, 2013.
The controversy over “Zero Dark Thirty”—specifically, over whether Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden accurately depicts the truth about the use of torture—has revived the old debate about the movies’ debt to the historical record. Another Oscar-nominated, based-on-a-true-story, starring-a-persistent-agent-from-the-Central-Intelligence-Agency movie that takes some liberties with the historical record, is also very much in the news, but except for the occasional critical story or post, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny trained on “Zero Dark Thirty.”
I enjoyed “Argo” for the political thriller that it was, but (fair warning, the first of many spoilers coming up!) felt somewhat manipulated by the contrived ending. Every possible angle of a thrilling escape from an airport was included: the last-minute change in reservation status, the encounter with brusque and seemingly uncomprehending guards, the authorities’ timely piecing together of evidence, the belated chase after the passengers in the terminal, the armed-men-in-jeeps-speeding-after-a-plane sequence. As it turns out, none of these airport-escape clichés happened.
The most that the American diplomats disguised as Canadian movie-making crew members endured at the Tehran airport in 1980 was a brief, surprising encounter with an immigration official who took all of their passports—and then came back with tea. As Tony Mendez, the CIA agent Affleck himself plays in the movie, recounted in his memoirs: their transit through the airport went “smooth as silk.”
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Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador portrayed sympathetically in the film as the courageous host of the six American diplomats hiding from Iranian revolutionaries, expressed his concern to Maclean’s magazine after the movie came out “that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.”
In truth, much of the help the Canadians extended to the beleaguered Americans was written out of the movie.
The pivotal role of another Canadian diplomat was completely ignored, for example. After several days on the run, the American diplomats finally called John Sheardown, first secretary at the Canadian embassy. Joshuah Bearman, whose 2007 feature story for Wired magazine, “How the CIA used a fake sci-fi flick to rescue Americans from Tehran,” became the main basis for the movie, describes the response of the man the Americans later took to calling Big Daddy: “‘Why didn’t you call sooner,’ Sheardown said. ‘Of course we can take you in’.”
Sheardown died two weeks ago at the age of 88; the New York Times obituary remembered his bracing response in a different way: “‘Hell, yes, of course,’ the diplomat, John Sheardown, answered. ‘Count on us’.”
Sheardown hosted four of the American diplomats at considerable personal risk. The Times gave a brisk summary of what hosting fugitives at that time meant: “He bought groceries at different stores to disguise his household’s suddenly larger appetite. He bribed the garbage collector with money and beer for the same reason. Surveillance, including tanks at the end of the street, was constant. Strangers knocked on the front door, suspicious calls were commonplace, their car was repeatedly searched.”
None of this was depicted in “Argo.”
The movie also scanted the official involvement of the Canadian government. The fake passports the American diplomats used were real Canadian travel documents, and acquiring them for use with assumed names was a complicated process. As Bearman writes: “Canadian law prohibits such falsification, but the country’s parliament held an emergency secret session, the first since World War II, to make an exception.”
There was more that was left out. “All the documentation to authenticate the diplomats as Canadians, the business cards, credit cards, the passports, the academic credentials, everything came out of Canada” (Taylor, interviewed by Jim Coyle of The Star). A Farsi-speaking Canadian staffer helped prepare the American diplomats for their airport transit through “mock interrogations” (Bearman). And “once the plan was decided on, Canadians ‘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’” (Slate’s David Haglund, quoting an irate Bernie Fletcher).
To be sure, not everything the Canadians did was up to scratch. In the situation-room scene where Affleck’s character is informed about the fate of the diplomats, the bicycle plan is presented: Essentially, the diplomats in hiding would be provided with bicycles, which they would then ride the 300 miles to the Turkish border—in the middle of winter. As it turns out, the ridiculous plan had Canadian origins; according to Bearman, the “antsy” Canadian minister of external affairs made the suggestion to the US Secretary of State at a Nato meeting, in December 1979.
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Did Affleck play fast and loose with the truth? The answer must be yes and no. The movie is faithful to the general sense of the Wired story, even as it compresses events and conflates personalities. Taylor would likely disagree that the truth of the situation was fairly depicted. “But look,” Taylor told the Star. “Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.”
That the CIA became the star: Is this art or entertainment?