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'Argo' Is Totally Inaccurate - Which Is Exactly Why It's Great

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by Matt Singer
October 19, 2012 11:09 AM
13 Comments
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Warner Bros. "Argo"

This post contains SPOILERS.

"It wasn't like in the movie," reads the subhead of Mark Lijek's personal account of his time as a hostage in Iran. The movie in question is "Argo," Ben Affleck's brilliant thriller about the CIA's efforts to "exfiltrate" Lijek and five other Americans hiding in Tehran's Canadian Embassy through the use of an elaborate cover story in which they and Tony Mendez (Affleck), the secret agent sent to rescue them, assumed the identities of a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a science-fiction movie. As ludicrous as it sounds, that part is absolutely true. But many of the details of Affleck's retelling of the story are fudged or outright falsified.

Take, for example, the scene depicted in the image at the top of this article. In that sequence, Mendez and the Americans go to a market in Tehran with a guide from the Ministry of Culture, in order to maintain the ruse that they are a Western film crew. They've just learned their new identities, they know nothing about how to make movies, and they already have to act like seasoned professionals -- and do it in the midst of potentially hostile environment. With skillful direction and editing, Affleck ratchets up the tension. It's a masterful sequence of suspense.

And none of it has any basis in the real life events.

There's no mention of the market in the Wired article by Joshuah Bearman that inspired "Argo." In reality, Mendez and the Americans spent their days together undetected at the embassy, where they rehearsed their roles in private. The terrifying sequence of being questioned by the Revolutionary Guard at the airport? The breathless chase of their plane by Iranian military men on the tarmac? Never happened. None of it.

Though "Argo" has received widespread positive reviews -- with over 40 grades on Criticwire, its average is an impressive A- -- some of its critics cite these fabricated events as a serious problem. At his website, Cole Smithey wrote that the film "is so overleveraged that you never for a second believe that it’s any reflection of what actually happened." On the latest episode of The /Filmcast, the hosts debated whether it was appropriate for Affleck to play so loose with the real-life story of Mendez and the American "houseguests." Websites like Slate and ScreenRant have posted extensive comparisons of the film and the facts, along with musings about the ethical implications of Affleck's changes.

We could debate, in a general sense, whether a filmmaker has a responsibility to the truth. In some cases, maybe they do. In this case though, the opposite is true. Not only do its fictionalizations enhance "Argo"'s impact, they also reinforce its themes.

Remember: "Argo" is more than a retelling of a true story of American espionage: it's also a love letter to the literally life-saving power of the movies. In order to succeed, Mendez's plan requires good old fashion Hollywood magic: before he heads east to Tehran, he first travels west to Los Angeles, where he hooks up with a makeup artist (John Goodman) and a washed-up producer (Alan Arkin, whose character is an amalgam of several real-life figures) to help him cook up his sci-fi movie cover story. They find a script no one wants called "Argo," buy the rights, set up a phony production company, hold a table reading, place an ad in Variety, and before they know it, people are beating down their door to take part in the film.

Affleck makes a lot of jokes at Hollywood's expense in these scenes, but he takes the power of movies themselves seriously. "Argo" wasn't a real movie -- but in Hollywood, what's real anyway? Every film is fake. Daniel Craig is not a dashing spy, Robert Downey Jr. is not a master inventor with a super-powered robotic suit, and even though her films look like documentaries, Katie Featherston is not actually possessed by a demon. These dreams are made real through the sheer power of collective belief -- both by those behind the camera as well as those sitting in front of the screen. Similarly, Mendez's plan only comes together once all the characters begin to believe it will work -- including the one skeptic in the group who springs into action to explain their mocked-up storyboards during the single most crucial moment of their interrogation.

The act of going to the movies is the act of willful self-deception: we want to be tricked into believing the impossible just as much as when we go to a magic show. "Argo" is not a journalistic record -- it is a movie about movies' ability to reshape reality for the better. Mendez and the hostages' adventure, then, is all moviemaking in microcosm, and as the film deviates further and further from the true events -- particularly in the nail-biting airport finale -- it further and further reinforces that idea. This is a story about the power of movies. And in turning the relatively mundane details of that story's true ending into a crackling fictional thriller, Affleck proves that power twice over. 

So of course, it wasn't like in the movie. That's what makes it a movie. And that's what makes it great.

Read more of "I Was Rescued From Iran."

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13 Comments

  • Brad Fulton | April 27, 2014 11:23 AMReply

    Relax folks. After all, it was just a movie.

  • Ken | October 25, 2013 9:54 AMReply

    Well I have yet to see this movie...and won't. Do a google search on Jimmy Carter and about Argo. The ex US President Jimmy Carter says the movie is inaccurate, and 90% of the work was the Canadian's not the CIA. And Mendez (Ben's character) was only in Iran for a day and a half....What they will do to make money.

  • Bill E | May 14, 2013 7:16 PMReply

    Another thing you could say about the whole thing is that with today's technology the whole thing could have been contrived. Even the stories on the dvd disk from the actual people could be made up.

    What is the purpose of the whole thing? To quiet people. To satisfy the American ego and to calm people down during a time in the US where things are not so great.

    And horrendously deciding what the younger generations should see years from now, and what they think is morally or correct in the history of the United States.

    I do not like people telling my children complete and utter illusions to grant superiority for themselves in being world decision makers. Or making decisions for future generations. There is a name for that, that I will not associate with the movie "Argo" though the should of it is very familiar.

    There are target markets today that can be reached. And propaganda to support these markets. Affecting the benvelent rights and wrongs throughout history.

    No where does it say in the movie that all of this should be taken with a grain of salt or accidental coincidences involved.

    To finish" Is it really all accurate and the truth?

    Call me a trouble maker or not. What is Hollywood going to stop dealing out big circles and start putting out entertainment.

  • Kyle E | October 24, 2012 10:48 PMReply

    The movie makes Mendez out to be the saviour, the hero, while the Canadians are nothing but innkeepers. I know it's Hollywood but that annoyed me. It was Ken Taylor who contacted Ottawa and arranged the flights, passports and other credentials. He also drove the six to the airport and stayed behind. Mendez came up with an overly intricate plan to pose as a Canadian film crew. They could've been anything, it didn't matter. It didn't take a miracle to get them out, just Canadian passports.

  • Cathy B | October 22, 2012 1:55 AMReply

    I haven't seen Argo yet, but from what I've read about what actually happened, it was Canadians who got the hostages out of Tehran. Ambassador Ken Taylor was a bit of a hero, it seems. Perhaps more of this film actually happened in Mendez' mind than in real life.

  • diggitty | October 22, 2012 2:45 AM

    It was Americans posing as Canadians because as Americans they'd have been targeted. And yes, I realize that Canada is in North America making them and everyone else in North, South, and Central America also Americans. Ok, I'll stop arguing with the voices in my head now. No, you be quiet.

  • Vino | October 19, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    I have no problem with the fiction in "Argo." My problem is the cornball escape hokum that we've seen in at least 200 other movies.

  • shelly isaacs | October 19, 2012 8:52 PMReply

    Bravo! Just goes. to prove that today Bullshit has more value than the truth

  • Joe G | October 19, 2012 7:12 PMReply

    It's also a whitewashing of what the CIA does around the world, by turning them into heroes. What about the Shah's dungeons, his secret police? What about the overthrow of a democracy after they kicked out British Petroleum? Defending democracy by destroying it? That's the real CIA.

  • Andrea Suarez | October 19, 2012 2:41 PMReply

    And if you just want to make a suspenseful movie, why bother with taking an event that happened and fictionalizing it? If you want to tell that story, tell that story. If not, make up a story.

    The problem with these things is that walk a thin line. It is clear that the priority here is some suspense, not understanding the way things happen. The true events are really just a hook to get us to see the movie - "this is real" - but then they deliver something else and want to make a shallow telling of reality because reality is reduced to a metaphor.

  • Siobhan | November 17, 2012 5:45 AM

    Argo isn't a documentary and didn't claim to be. Affleck had every right to use a bit of creative licence.

  • Julian Carrington | October 19, 2012 1:49 PMReply

    I have to say that while I generally enjoyed "Argo," I do take issue with the finale's surfeit of Hollywood suspense cliches. To me, these detracted from the film not because they patently didn't happen in reality, but because they rang false and felt contrived even by fictional standards.

    The plane tickets not being ordered, and then being processed in an instant (in 1980, no less); John Goodman waiting to cross the lot to answer the ringing phone; the Revolutionary Guard chasing the plane to the very edge of the runway -- these moments felt like overt manipulations, and suspense, to me, works best when you aren't aware of a filmmaker insistently prompting you, strenuously trying to coax you to the edge of your seat. In isolation, these suspense beats might not have had me rolling my eyes, but piled-on one after another as they are, I couldn't help but feel as though Affleck was virtually grabbing me by the lapels.

    The market scene, by contrast, felt like an organic instant of suspense. It didn't happen in reality, but, to me, it seemed plausible that the hostages might have to shore up their assumed identities by meeting representatives of the Ministry of Culture in a public place. Next to that scene, much of the airport sequence felt laboured -- "overleveraged" is apt -- to a distracting degree.

  • Brian Newton | February 26, 2013 4:20 AM

    I'm so glad you said this. I just watched the film and had the same reaction. None of these instances were planned close calls either, the film just made them all out to be completely random near misses by seconds, despite involving people often times on other parts of the globe. As you said, really pulled me out of the story.

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