In order to make a good movie you have to tell a good story, and in order to tell a good story a few elements have to be in place. Among other things, the story can’t be too difficult to follow: it needs to have a clear thread, understandable action, and relatable characters. And, if your story is to be made into a suspenseful movie, the action has to build to a palpable crisis so that the audience feels the relief when that crisis is resolved. Argo is a very good movie that tells a great story.
Life doesn’t often take the structure of a good story, though. Even the best true stories are likely to be less clear than good fiction, and even the most intense crises are unlikely to build and resolve like a made for Hollywood script. This is precisely the case for the true story behind Ben Affleck’s film, Argo. The film is true to the spirit of what happened to the six hostages that Tony Mendez led out of Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis, but it meddles a bit with the details in order to tell a compelling tale.
In 1997, the files containing Argo‘s true story were declassified by President Bill Clinton. As soon as that happened, Antonio J. “Tony” Mendez got his Intelligence Star back, this time permanently and publicly. Ten year laters, Joshua Bearman told the story of the “Hollywood Option” aka “The Canadian Caper” in the April 24th issue of Wired magazine. According to a recent article in Slate magazine, Bearman was put on to the story by David Klawans, an independent movie producer who thought making the story could give him some momentum to make it into a movie. Looks like it worked! (Art follows life follows art follows life. . . . )
Mark Lijek (played by Christopher Denham in Argo) published a follow up story in Slate a week after Bearman’s. Lijek praises Argo enthusiastically. He affirms the film’s fidelity to the basic facts of the situation he lived through in 1979 and 1980 as well as the cinematic power of some of the changes that were made in order to tell the story compellingly on film. But Lijek also confesses a bit of disappointment related to one of the changes made to the film–the omission of John Sheardown from the story.
In order to understand Sheardown’s role, one must get in touch with some of the other ways that the Argo script differed from what really happened in Tehran. First, the five (not six) Americans that walked away from the American Consulate building did not walk straight to the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. As Lijek tells it,
On Nov. 4, 1979, when the American Embassy was overtaken, we did not stroll directly to the Canadian ambassador’s residence. While the attackers were seizing the main building, we were told to walk to the British embassy compound, 20 minutes away. We never made it there, because a demonstration blocked the way. Immigration chief Bob Anders (played by Tate Donovan in Argo) suggested we go instead to his nearby apartment. My wife Cora as well as Joe and Kathy Stafford, two other embassy employees, followed his lead. (The sixth member of our group, Lee Schatz, joined us a week later, after hiding with the Swedes.)
But, if they didn’t go straight to the Canadian embassy, where did they go? As it turns out, they went several places, and telling the story factually is a bit complicated. That’s, of course, why, things were simplified in the film.
During the next week we changed locations five times. We spent one night at the British residential compound. The British embassy was also captured, though, albeit briefly, and there was a near attack on the residential compound itself. So both governments agreed we should move
After leaving the British embassy, they stayed with someone named Vic who employed someone named Sam who spoke Thai, then they lived briefly with someone else who also employed Sam. (See what I mean by it being complicated?) But then, the second “Sam” house was determined unsafe, and they had to find somewhere else to go.
It was then that we discussed again a call that Bob Anders had made several days before. Early in the ordeal, Bob had telephoned two friends. One, an Australian, was willing to help but lived in a small apartment. The other was Bob’s Canadian counterpart, John Sheardown. When Bob called him, John’s immediate response was “Why didn’t you call sooner?” Bob told him there were five of us. John insisted, “Bring ’em all.”
So, it was John Sheardown, not Ken Taylor who first brought the Americans into Canada’s safe keeping. But, John’s role didn’t end there. For simplicity sake, the film showed all of the Americans living in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence with Ken Taylor (played in Argo by Victor Garber), but that’s not actually how it happened.
Our living arrangements were comfortable. The Staffords went to the Taylor residence. We other three remained with the Sheardowns. John became our substitute father and Zena our buffer against the outside world
John and Zana Sheardown did not play a minor role in the operation, at all. They hosted half the American contingent and were the reason that the other half of the group found their way to Ken Taylor. And, they weren’t mentioned in the film–not even alluded to. Again, this makes perfect sense from the perspective of editing a script, but it is a little sad nonetheless. The Sheardowns were heroes, and their story should be told, too.
Perhaps the most substantial discrepancy between reality and the script has to do with what happened in the airport. In the movie, there are interrogations, delays, phone calls, busted glass doors, and a police chase on the runway (do planes not have rearview mirrors?). In reality, the Americans led by their “Moses,” Tony Mendes walked straight through security and on to the plane without a hitch. .
Another discrepancy seems a little more problematic to me and a little less warranted by the need to write a compelling script. According to David Haglund’s Slate story, the Canadians were much more involved in preparing the Americans for their escape than the movie portrayed. Rather than passively (albeit heroically) waiting for the Americans to ride over the Iranian hill on a white horse, in reality, the Canadians had very active roles in the operation. They scoped the airport, prepared the Americans for interrogations, bought the plane tickets, etc.
So, let’s sum up. What’s false in Argo? A lot. Five, not six Americans walked away from the consulate. After leaving the consulate, those Americans did not go straight to the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. In fact, not all six Americans stayed at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence at all; half the group stayed with another Canadian, John Sheardown. The Canadians were not just involved in the operation as safe house hosts; they worked actively to develop credentials, do reconnaissance on the airport, and purchase plane tickets. When Tony Mendez lead them through the airport, there was no suspenseful interrogation and nothing like a chase down the tarmac with police cars; the plan went off smoothly and without drama.
What’s true in Argo? A lot more. Six Americans evaded the Iranians who kidnapped the hostages who were in captivity for 444 days. They hid out in Tehran and were taken care of by Canadians, among others. Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, was a very important player in keeping some of them safe. Tony Mendez was sent in to be their exfiltration Moses, and he brought them cover identities based on a fake movie developed by real Hollywood players. Bravely and brilliantly, Tony Mendez got them all out safely and was awarded the Intelligence Star, although no one outside the CIA knew his story until the files were declassified in 1997, Joshua Bearman wrote a great story in Wired magazine in 2007, and Ben Affleck made a compelling film called Argo in 2012.