Should ‘Argo’ Have Been More Accurate? Minor Points About the Fake Movie and the Real Mendez Family

By  · Published on October 14th, 2012

Movies based on true stories are rarely – if even ever – 100% accurate. To make it an engaging story for an audience, obviously some dramatic license must be used. And for the time constraints of a feature, there has to be a good deal of condensing and abridging and in many cases exclusion. For the full accounts of real life, we may have nonfiction books or magazine articles or the Internet, and these more extensive and comprehensive tools are easily accessed after seeing the film in order to get at the greater truth. Movies based on true stories are more like teasers of true stories. And like most advertisements they have to stretch reality to pique our interest.

Argo is certainly that kind of teaser. But are people giving Ben Affleck’s latest too much credit in the accuracy department? I keep reading stuff about how the actor/director aimed for realism (see the post from yesterday about the film’s sound design), which may be the case in terms of tone and technical accomplishments such as period costumes and production design. There is quality to the recreation of time and place, if not all facts. Meanwhile, many critics are calling this film “stranger than fiction,” which is very misleading given just how much fictionalizing went into the script in order for it to have themes and a whole lot of suspense (too much, in my opinion, near the point of feeling like self-parody).

The true story is indeed strange, and you can get greater accuracy by reading Joshua Bearman’s 2007 Wired article, which sparked the interest of Hollywood, as well as two memoirs of Affleck’s character in the film, Antonio Mendez. One is 2000’s “The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA” and another is a newly published movie tie-in called “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.” For the Cliff Notes version, at Slate David Haglund has gone through and highlighted differences between the movie and the reality, such as the facts that the six Americans in need of rescue were split between two hiding places and that the producer played by Alan Arkin is completely made up. Also, pretty much every part of the climax at the Tehran airport was fabricated for… well, a greater climax.

Regarding that hostage split, its details pertain to the truth of Canada’s involvement in the rescue, which was a lot more than Argo makes it seem. And we heard about annoyed Canadians last month when the film debuted in Toronto, some of whom called it an outright insult. But what else is new, right? America makes movies that shine better light on themselves. Sometimes we even appropriate whole true stories as our own (see U-571). For a version more respectful to Canada’s part in the story, you can seek out the 1981 CBC movie Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper and its related documentary Escape from Iran: The Inside Story. Les Harris, who produced those, also made another more recent doc about the whole Iran hostage crisis narrated by William Shatner and titled 444 Days to Freedom (What Really Happened in Iran). None dealt with the fake movie aspect, though, since that was all still classified by the CIA (Harris comments on Argo in this article).

We can get picky with any movie based on a true story, but there are two main points about this film’s inaccuracies that I want to address. One creates a bit of a plot hole, I think, which is weird since it’s something that could have very easily adhered to the truth. The other is a huge rewrite of Mendez’s personal life, which I think is very necessary to this sort of movie in order to create a narrative “protagonist” out of a real person.

First, there’s the real-life screenplay that was used as a prop for the fake production. Nathan wrote a bit about this the other day in a post about a documentary in development about that screenplay. It was an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s sci-fi novel Lord of Light scripted by Barry Ira Gellar. In reality, makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman in Argo) was working on that failed project and then brought it to Mendez when the rescue operation came about. They gave it a new title page with the name “Argo.” The reason for the name change in real life is probably as obvious as it sounds: keeping the original title would require too much complication with Gellar and anyone else associated with it.

As it is in the movie, a script called “Argo” existed and had to have been written by someone, a writer who might have taken notice and even issue with the thing suddenly going into production (yes, he would have been paid, through his agent played by Richard Kind, but we know how writers are). Not only that, but somewhere there had to be acknowledgment of the “Argo” screenwriter in order to link it to hostage Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall), who would be pretending to be that writer during the escape. There would just be too many extra issues with using a real script by name. And there’s really no reason why the movie couldn’t have just depicted the title page swap. Maybe there was a legal reason they couldn’t involve Lord of Light by name, but they could have made up another title to switch out.

For a bit of an aside, here’s part of an episode of Errol Morris’s 2000 TV series First Person, in which Antonio Mendez talks about the mission, acknowledging Gellar’s script and the concept design drawings by comics legend Jack Kirby (who is himself portrayed in Argo):

Regarding the family drama, in real life Mendez was not separated from his wife and son, as is shown in the movie. Mendez’s wife, Karen (renamed Christine and played by Taylor Schilling), is even said to have driven him to the airport for his mission. The son’s name is Ian (played by child actor Aidan Sussman), and Mendez did indeed have a son by that name. In the year the movie is set, however, Ian was 17-years-old and also had an older sister and an older brother (the latter, famous sculptor Toby Mendez), though both would have likely been out of the house by then anyway. It appears that Ian might have been singled out by name because, as an “in memoriam” credit references at the end, the real-life Ian Mendez died from colon cancer in 2010.

Why the drastic change to the family story, though? I see it as fitting the theme of “turnaround” that figures on many levels in the film. There is the Hollywood type of turnaround, which Lord of Light (and “Argo”) are said to be in, which of course we know involves a project falling through at one studio and being passed to another. Historically, Iran was also in a kind of turnaround, technically a revolution, as was the nation’s former Shah, Mohammad Pahlavi, who has been passed over to the U.S. at the time and was being requested be returned to Tehran. So, it fits that Mendez’s life is also in another state of turnaround, specifically involving his marriage. And with that is his relationship with Ian, whose interest in sci-fi is made to be an influence on Mendez’s plan, though the motivation and significance of the final pan through the kid’s Star Wars toy-filled room eluded me.

Maybe we don’t need to have that fake angle for the main character, whether it’s just to add the thematic level or get us to care more about him. Why not develop the hostages (or hiding Americans, or whatever they should technically be called) more as characters? Because it’s meant to be this guy’s single narrative, which is the way most movies go with true stories, because otherwise it could be a clutter of unfocused accounts of everyone and everything involved. And Argo is just a movie, a scripted version of a true story. I think the posters and marketing get it perfectly right: “The movie was fake. The mission was real.” The movie referred to is Argo as much as the pretend production within the movie.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.