BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Ben Affleck met former CIA agent Tony Mendez at a Georgetown bar in Washington, D.C., a place where convicted spy Aldrich Ames used to rendezvous with his Soviet handlers and exchange secrets for cash.
Affleck was not looking for secrets: The story of Mendez' successful plan to spirit six U.S. embassy workers out of Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis was declassified 15 years ago. Instead, he was looking for verification, firsthand proof that the story he wanted to tell in his third directorial effort, “Argo,” was as true as its reputation.
“This was a real story about a real guy who worked in a real world where real lives were at stake,” Affleck said during a news conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “It wasn't just sliding down the roof and kicking in the window and shooting three guys, which is the kind of thing that we, in Hollywood, tend to think of as the CIA. It was a real thing, and it's out there.”
“Argo” has the gravity of history backing it up. In November 1979, when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 workers hostage, six U.S. civil servants managed to slip out of the compound and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. The C.I.A. floated several internal options for rescuing the workers, but most normal courses of action, including diplomatic channels, would not work in the radicalized environment of post-Shah Tehran.
Mendez, who joined the agency during the Vietnam War, was the former head of the C.I.A.'s disguise division and was then in charge of creating authentic cover documents for false identities.
After several plans were ruled out, Mendez concocted an elaborate strategy: He would create a back story in which the six Americans were, in fact, a Canadian film crew scouting for Middle Eastern locations for a science fiction movie. He contacted a John Chambers, a makeup effects artist whose credits included “Star Trek” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” to help create a fake production company around an unproduced actual script called “Argo.”
What followed was a race against time as Mendez worked with Chambers to create a verifiable but fake movie project, then flew to Tehran, where he coached the six embassy workers, provided them with fake Canadian passports and attempted to get them onto a plane before any of the Iranian militants could discover the plan.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio began adapting the story from two sources: Mendez' “Master of Disguise: My Life in the C.I.A.” and an extensive 2007 Wired magazine article by Josh Bearman, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran.”
“When I got the script, I couldn't believe how good it was,” Affleck said of his script meetings before working with executive producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney. “They said, ‘This is our best script,' and I thought that was some executive hyping me on it, but it really was pretty incredible. I was amazed.”