Some yarns are made for the movies. Their story lines, full of high-risk challenges, plot twists, and clear heroes and villains, translate easily to the big screen. The tale at the heart of “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History” clearly fits this category. Indeed, Hollywood thought so, too: The book is being published just weeks before the Ben Affleck-directed movie, “Argo,” is scheduled to screen.
Written by former CIA operative Antonio Mendez and journalist Matt Baglio, the book presents Mendez’s first-person account of a dangerous but successful operation, aided by Hollywood and the Canadian government, to help six US diplomats escape from Iran in 1979.
It’s a fast-paced, straightforward, and gripping story full of drama and compelling characters. The writing here, however, falls short, marred by a smattering of avoidable clichés. But it’s good enough. And the narrative unfurls interesting details about the spy world from an artist turned decorated agent who speaks honestly about his fears and familial conflicts.
Mendez kept this story secret for decades until the US government gave him leave to tell it. With the help of Baglio, he starts by introducing himself: a CIA agent and father of three grappling with the news that six Americans escaped the US embassy in Tehran where dozens had been taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, by “militant students’’ angry about US support of the shah. The group is being secretly harbored by Canadian officials, and Mendez receives orders to find a way to get them out of Iran and bring them home.
We learn that Mendez had experience helping others “exfiltrate” from dangerous locales and had taken away from those missions certain lessons. “[M]y experience tells me that when we are managing a complex operation for more than one or two people, it’s best to consolidate your risk, put everyone together under an appropriate cover, and take the shortest and quickest route out,’’ Mendez says. “It’s one of the principles of guerrilla warfare: Choose the time and place for action and overwhelm their senses.”
What he must do is clear; how to do it, less so. Mendez decides to tap the agency’s Hollywood connection. It seems that over the years the CIA, recognizing the similarities between show biz and spying (principally an interest in deception and disguise), had actually sent agents to Hollywood to hone their trade by working on film sets. Mendez comes up with the idea of disguising the diplomats as a production team scouting locations to film a fake movie called “Argo.’’ To make the scheme more plausible, the CIA goes so far as to staff a production company, Studio Six, in Los Angeles in case suspicious Iranian officials start to poke around.
Mendez taps himself to be the Hollywood producer so he can meet the escapees and help them prepare for the most important roles of their lives. Comically, the government agents have to embrace their new identities as Hollywood types: frizzing their hair, partially unbuttoning shirts, being “more flamboyant, edgier, sexier.”
In the end, the group escaped, and months later the rest of the US hostages were released, 444 days after the embassy takeover. For decades, the CIA kept silent about its involvement in the escape, leaving most of the credit to the Canadians.
Nearly 20 years later, the federal government declassified the story, leading to honors for Mendez and the production of the upcoming movie. For history buffs and Affleck fans, “Argo,” the book, provides added insight into a wild, if not widely known, incident in the history of American foreign policy and the CIA.Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jbmckim.