‘Argo’: The Movie vs. The True Story

Published 3 years ago by , Updated February 25th, 2013 at 3:07 pm,

Box Office Oct 14 Argo Argo: The Movie vs. The True Story

Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind unfolds as a psycho-thriller, mental-illness melodrama, and touching romance (depending on the scene), but fits into a peg hole easier than the unpredictable story behind it. While watching Ben Affleck’s historical drama-thriller Argo, I had the feeling it was taking similar liberties so as to likewise create (as Screen Rant‘s Kofi Outlaw put in his review) “worthwhile genre entertainment (no more, no less).”

That hunch turned out to be correct, but it raises the question: Would a ‘facts-only’ version of Argo have made for better or weaker entertainment – not to mention more (or less) relevant cultural resonance? Well, that’s what we’re here to investigate.

Argo, like Beautiful Mind, plays out as a clever mix of genre formulas. The opening minutes feel lifted from a documentary about the 1970s Iranian Revolution; grainy photography from Rodrigo Prieto allows stock footage to blend seamlessly with the actual film. Affleck’s direction and Chris Terrio’s script allows the film to smoothly shift from white-knuckle thriller to CIA socio-political drama, Hollywood satire, and back to high-tension yarn during the third act. In order to reach the sweaty-palm climax, though, a fair amount of exaggeration takes place.

In David Haglund’s article for Slate, it’s pointed out that virtually all the obstacles Argo throws at Affleck’s CIA agent Tony Mendez and the six endangered American embassy escapees during the third act were, in fact, made up. The reason things went so much smoother in real-life? It turns out Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber) and a fellow embassy employee John Sheardown – who does not appear in the film – were more involved with the rescue effort than the movie suggests. The two not only helped scout out the Iran airport in advance, but also purchased the Americans’ tickets, coached them in having a Canadian accent, and were even responsible for setting the rescue plan in motion to begin with.

Christipher Dunham Clea Du Vall Tate Donovan Rory Cochrane Kerry Bishe and Scott McNairy in Argo Argo: The Movie vs. The True Story

A postscript during the film’s end titles – citing the Argo incident as a model of international cooperation – makes much more sense when you keep those facts in mind. Moreover, it calls attention to how the film could have been something quite different; instead of juxtaposing Mendez’ efforts in putting together the titular fake movie with scenes alluding to the metaphorical noose tightening around the six Americans’ collective necks (as the Iranian revolutionaries slowly became aware of their presence), the film could have jumped back and forth between the Canadians and Mendez in action. Eventually, the plot threads could come together like pieces to a puzzle, thus illustrating the beneficial nature of complimentary approaches to a large-scale problem (an important lesson for today, given the current political climate).

Now, would such a film have been nearly as engaging and fun to watch as Argo? To be honest, probably not. However, it might have allowed Affleck and Terrio to skip on some of the cliches – like turning Mendez into a workaholic with a messy personal life, or featuring stereotypical Iranian soldiers who do little more than run around and act angry. We could have followed multiple people (not just a single protagonist) as they discover the idiosyncrasies of both Hollywood folk and Iranian personnel, then deduce how to use them to their advantage, so as to pull off such a so-crazy-it’s-brilliant rescue operation. It might have been equally smart and funny at examining two very different cultures (as Argo manages to do when it concerns people in the movie business) –  but again, that would have lowered the suspense factor.

What’s interesting is that Argo also had potential to offer a different perspective on the filmmaking process, seeing how (in real life) colorful personalities such as Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby, and Buckminster Fuller were among those recruited to help the titular script (which was actually based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, titled Lord of Light) seem legit. Instead, the film drops most of those people from the story in favor of fictional producer Lester Siegel (played by Alan Arkin) who embodies both the admirable and terrible traits that most people associate with Hollywood power players.

John Goodman and Alan Arkin in Argo Argo: The Movie vs. The True Story

However, at the end of the day, sticking closer to the facts might have resulted in an Argo movie that’s less accessible and watchable for your average moviegoer; though, on the hand, also one more thoughtful and even-handed than your average cinematic sermon from Hollywood. The path Affleck took played to his strengths as a storyteller, more so than a different strategy would have. Maybe somewhere down the road, as Affleck continues to gain confidence (not to mention, credibility) as a director, he will strive to break further away from convention than he has so far. That’s all the more feasible, assuming he continues to develop at the same pace as he has with his first three films.

Argo is currently playing in theaters (for further breakdown of the film, check out the latest episode of the SR Underground Podcast).

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Source: Slate

TAGS: Argo
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  1. I didn’t find this movie very entertaining, I guess the plot didn’t do it for me idk, well made tho

  2. I don’t the climax would have been as tense if they stuck to the facts

  3. This was an interesting side show of the American hostage crisis, and while I still want to see Affleck’s movie, I’d prefer something that stuck closer to the true story.

  4. I just saw the movie tonight; terrific suspense but they could have done with the last scene at the airport (rememebr the King of Scotland?)It makes the whole thing looks ridiculous.
    If the is a lesson in this film is that never, but never, a Western nation – the US in particular – should allow its embassy to be violated. A platton of Marines should be able to hold on until the arrival of a massive air raid. Don’t compromise. Did the Egyptians attack the Israeli Embassy in Cairo? NO, they knew better and the US Embassy was an easy target because the image of this country is now weakness. Ttheodore Roosevelt where are you?

    • @Charles Balesi, I beg to differ, and film’s creators do as well. If there’s a message in Argo, its that much caution must be taken when nations with international influence, like the U.S. support and aid regime changes. The U.S.’s irresponsible involvement in regime changes within Iran was a huge reason the embassy was assaulted. The movie made a point of acknowledging that as well.

    • You cannot criticize the movie for its lack of accuracy and realism, while at the same time suggesting “massive air raids.” Thank God nearly all military professionals I know (and I do know a few, as I am a retired Air Force colonel) would counsel against such reckless policy. Whom do you suggest we bomb? What are the target sets? Wars have unintended consequences, as we all know from our misadventure in Iraq. Amateurs thump their chests and say “just bomb the S.O.B.’s”. In real life, as in the movies, professionals must take care of the mundane details like worrying about the consequences of our actions. Perhaps that is why movies routinely fudge the facts. Reality is just too boring for those who want action and adventure. Of course, those who want action and adventure are not those flying the plans or who have their boots on the ground.

    • Not relevant to the film or history.

    • Couldn’t have said it better!

  5. Like BEAUTIFUL MIND, the true story behind ARGO is BETTER than the movies than were made from them. Both films are good, but, why deviate from the facts? Especially, when many of the juicy details are better in the true events?

  6. I remember the actual events, and the big time heroes were the Canadians at their embassy there. The focus of the film on the CIA sort of takes away from the Canadians the huge thing that they did for USA. Go, Canada!

    • I think that’s kind of the point of the movie. It was showing what actually happened behind the scenes. No one at the time could know the CIA was involved, which is why they show in the movie that the Canadian’s got all the credit.

      I have done a ton of research myself, so I could be wrong, but if I’m not then this is a mistake in the article as well. Because the history would show that Canada was responsible for the brunt of it, which the movie suggests is not true. While they did their part (and it was significant), the CIA made it happen, and then had to give the credit to the Canadians after the fact to keep things classified.

      So saying you REMEMBER the actual events, is really only saying you remember what both governments told to the public, which is not what actually happened.

      • That should read, “I HAVEN’T done a ton of research”

      • How was the CIA involvement so crucial? Do you realize that they Mendez spent only 1.5 days in Iran? Do you realize that the story they created wasn’t even necessary (Canada had planned for everything but the CIA wanted to use a cover story of their own so Canada agreed.) Everything else was taken care of by Canadians…hiding the hostages for 3+ months, arranging for fake Canadian passports and fake Canadian identities, arranging for the flights out, not closing their embassy till they were sure the Americans had safely left, etc. etc. All the CIA did was make a cover story and show up one day and fly out the next with the hostages on a Canadian-arranged flight. So ya, I have to disagree with you here. Yes they were involved but their involvement was really minimal compared to the bigger story here and 99% of it took place in the safety of the States… not so for the Canadian staff who risked their lives for 3+ months and who destroyed their diplomatic relations with Iran at the time in order to stand and help the Americans in their hour of need.

    • Yeah, Canada deserves credit for what happened in real life, of course. But still, this implied “Go Canada!/we-are-THE-BEST-and-NICEST” bullsh*t really is silly. It was still a cooperative effort, so give credit to both sides, yes?

  7. I saw the film over the weekend and really enjoyed it. Yes the film took some liberties with the facts but I still think accurately captured the spirit of the operation and what was going on in the minds of the participants. America, and the six diplomats definitely owe a lot to Canada and Sheardown/Taylor for their courageousness in taking in the Americans, however, make no mistake Tony Mendez is a hero for risking his life to go into Iran to get them out.
    I read Haglund’s article and really enjoyed looking at the differences between the reality versus fiction. One small thing I will quibble with is the claim that the Canadians bought the American’s tickets, which is not true. It was the CIA who actually bought and doctored the tickets.

      • Bernie, you are right that John Sheardown has been overlooked, which is a tragedy. He was actually the first person the six contacted. As far as the tickets I am talking about the airline tickets, not the passports. Taylor claims that he bought three sets of tickets, but I think he means “backups”? The CIA had to make it look like the six had flown into Iran from somewhere and had roundtrip tickets to get out. This cover was built well in advance with the flights booked before Mendez went into Iran. There is no way that the six, along with Mendez, would have gone to the airport in Tehran with three sets of tickets, not to mention one-way tickets, either of which would have looked suspicious.

    • I disagree with you on that. It was Canadian embassy staff who went to the airport and purchased the tickets ahead of time. There was no tickets from the CIA as it showed in the movie and there was also no big problem in the airport like the movie showed except for an uneventful 30 minute delay…

  8. I’m going to go a bit off topic here so I apologize but to this day I cringe when I think about A Beautiful Mind.
    Everything about that movie absolutely screamed “Hey, Oscars Look At Me!!!” and then it actually won a bunch. I usually have no problem with that because it’s just the way things are done but for some reason with that movie it just drove me nuts.
    End of rant. I really enjoyed Argo. :)

  9. Corey, sorry, I tend to believe the Ambassador. Why would Taylor buy 3 sets of “backup” airline tickets? The six went to the airport in a Canadian Embassy van driven by an Iranian employee, met Mendez there and got on a Swissair flight with other Canadians. Lots of people buy one way tickets. Sure the visas were doctored, but the CIA screwed that up with the wrong dates and were corrected by Roger Lucy who understood Farsi and also did the fake interrogation. Airport officials didn’t interrogate or cross-check the yellow/white sheets anyway. By the way John Sheardown is in a veterans’ hospital in Ottawa. He had so much trash from feeding the four that he had to bribe garbagemen. 190 actors in Argo, no room for him.

    • Bernie, have you read Mendez’s new book, Argo? It has the same title as the film but it’s based on the actual events and not the film. In it he thanks Canada and singles out Sheardown, Taylor and Lucy for their help. No mention in there of three sets of tickets. I would imagine that a group of Westerners showing up at the airport in Tehran during the hostage crisis with one way tickets might raise some suspicions, no?
      I have nothing to do with the film and not sure why you keep mentioning Sheardown in that context. I agree wholeheartedly that he is a hero and that he should have been put in the film.

  10. Victor Garber is a fine actor .
    But , I didnt like the scene where the Canadian Ambassador
    Says, “I was expecting more of a G Man look .”
    I am sure the real Ambassador knows the difference between The FBI And The CIA.

    • I’m surprised they didn’t have him say:
      “I was expecting more of a G man look, eh”

  11. All of this discussion reminds me, when Hollywood says “Based on a true story” they’re usually leaving out the word ‘loosely.’ Argo was very entertaining. So was A Beautiful Mind for that matter. Both movies had more fictional elements than real ones.

  12. I could forgive all the fictions if two things had been done differently:

    1. A succinct summary at the end of what was fact and what was movie making fiction for entertainment purposes.

    2. Skip the total bullcrap airport escape episode with maniacal revolutionary guards in jeeps racing after a 747 taking off on a scheduled international flight. That was far more ridiculous than any Popeye, Elmer Fudd, Mickey Mouse or Roadrunner cartoon and far less plausible.

    • Donald Ardell, while I wholeheartedly agree with your second point, I definitely disagree with your first point, only because it’s a movie “based” on a true story, not a documentary. I loved the film and actually thought they did a great job of contextualizing some of the reasons for the revolution and the vitriolic anti-Americanism of the time. I don’t think it’s necessary to summarize what is fact and fiction because… well, it’s a movie. And MOST of the changes weren’t so significant as to change the fundamental fabric of the story. Could they have focused more on the Canadians’ effort? Absolutely. Were there some unnecessary bits added in for narrative tension? Yes. But it didn’t present itself as a documentary, so I don’t think they have any responsibility to the viewers to summarize.

      However, your second point is spot on: the cartoonish airport plane/car chase featuring Islamophobic clichés cheapened everything else that they had done so well. It was unnecessary (just the anticipation of them actually getting out and taking off is enough!) and definitely more “Fast and the Furious” than historical recreation.

  13. Argo is a lot of nonsense that minimizes the heroics of the Canadian governent and diplomats that risked their lives to save a half dozen Americans. The CIA story illustrated by Argo was actually inconsequential in determining the outcome and, in fact, CIA errors in using the wrong calendar for the Iranian visas, and only corrected by Canadians,was the greatest threat to success. Argo is a lot of “John Wayne” hot air that mocks history in order to pump up American egos. We seen this script before.

    • Since Ben thanked Canada at the Oscars, I’m OK with him. Congratulations, Ben Affleck!

    • Yes, and they were visas supplied by the Canadian govt. but the CIA did supply the fake stamps but you’re right, they goofed it and thank God a Canadian staff member spotted that!

  14. Just saw the movie tonight and had to come home and do research. My question is… Is everyone a critic? The movie would have had to be two weeks long to get all the details in. Can’t we just sit back and be entertained? I know I was.

    • Right on, Carrie. :)

      • exactly! I really enjoyed it.

    • Of course everyone is a critic… it’s human nature.

      I believe that most of the facts could have been maintained and kept the story entertaining.

      Was anyone really on the edge of their seats during the airport scenes? More could have gone into the meat of how they had planned it and it would have been just as good… heck… I would have liked them to include how they got the dates wrong on the passports because Iran starts their year in March unlike the US.

    • How would Americans have felt if one of their own who had done something that made all Americans proud was reduced to a bit part in a movie that glorified someone else whose actual role was much less than portrayed in the grand scheme of things? And then they had to listen to all the praise heaped on the story that wasn’t even true. Somehow I think they’d be a little bit offended as well.

  15. I watched and ejoyed the movie. It was a piece that remained suspeseful from begining to end. The bickering at CIA and State Department attempting to take control of something far outside thier expertise is no stretch. Neither was the depiction of an officer having personal problems due to work requirements and expectations. I expect Ben will be receiving many awards for this outstanding offering.

  16. Just saw Argo with very little knowledge of the actual events. I left the theater fairly convinced that the films last 20 minutes were probably total B.S. In spite of this, Argo was totally enjoyable and I thought it conveyed the feeling of being taken over by a mob of protesters very well. After reading up on the history, I did find some things that should have been worked into the script for a more complicated adventure. It would have been nice to see Zelazny and Kirby receive some credit as well as the other embassies that were described as uncaring in the film. Personally I enjoy films like this simply because it causes me to dive into history. I feel that if this were to be the average response of viewers (I doubt it is) than such films have truly accomplished a good thing. Maybe when hollywood attempts to depict history they can have an accuracy meter in the adverts. A loosely based scale of 1 to 5. Argo is loosely based X4 on actual events.

  17. I lived in Canada in 1979 when this happened and remember the intense pride that Canadians had when they learned how they helped their American Bretheren. The movie indicated that to protect the remaining hostages, the “heroic” Americans would have to “blame” the rescue on the Canadians. The Canadian citizenry in 1980 were duped as heroes according to the movie and in real life, whereas their total involvement to the mission as reported on this site could have and should have validated the full respect they were due. Trust Afleck to ignore the details and focus on his cool dude beard and failed marriage (me, me, me) which were insignificant compared to the aide of the Canadians. For most of the theater laughing throughout, you knew you were watching a cheesy flick.

  18. Can u actually duplicate a true story or make one up? Are some stories better left said or unsaid ? What l found w this movie is a ingenious scheme to dupe kidnappers into believing in a ridiculous & fictitious story that is surpose to be true. With the elections coming up soon it would be a plus for the incumbent…l gave the movie a 2 1/2 Stars.

  19. I just saw Argo. I lived in Iran from Feb 1976 to March 1978. Those people who wanted to leave out the last 20 minutes of the movie never, and I mean never, knew what it’s like to try and leave an airport and airspace like that. When we left Iran in ’78 all we had to do was strip under the watchful eyes of an Iranian femal guard inside the airport and then once on board pray that no one came out on the tarmac to stop the plane before we took off. Some of the facts maybe a bit off but the feel of the movie was spot on! good job!

  20. It was nostalgic & close to heart movie about an angle of that crises that i didnt know about.
    But all that a side its a great inspiration for being brave and the last night in the hotel reminds me of many sleepless nights before big confrontations. Long live best bad ideas

  21. I truly enjoyed the movie. I think American audiences need the hero of Mendez, given the entire climate of the movie and that awful period when the hostages were held was precipitated by American greed. I disagree that enough wasn’t said or done to promote the role the Canadians played. I could care less about who bought the actual tickets; you know that they risked their lives for the sake of others. The point is clearly made that if it weren’t for the Canadians, those people would’ve died immediately. I think the added suspense was fine; it would’ve been a pretty boring end if they just got right on the plane without question. Finally, the Canadians were credited by history. Let Mendez have his Affleck moment. It was very thoughtfully done without being too too much.

  22. i had no idea he was that good looking. gives keanu a huge leap for his money.
    i liked it a lot.
    should be more movies like it.
    could have been shaved by 23 mins.
    i will see more movies directed by him.
    i liked him in the movie where he met his wife. i must like him.
    clever but now i’m being informed there were things missed out.
    why would anybody leave out facts when they merged together old footage with new.

    • The Canadian ambassador was already working for the CIA.

      • When they say he was working for the CIA, they mean that he had agreed to try to get them information on what was going on over there in order to try to help them save the remaining hostages that were in custody. That does not mean he was an employee of theirs by any means, he said he knew what he had to do given the situation the hostages were in and he did it! He knew the States could not just send personnel in to do it and he stepped up to help however he could.

  23. the sad part about movies that are “based on actual events” is that people, although “entertained” at the theatre, are being misinformed. for example, my father fought in ww2 for the canadians. every hollywood movie ever made about the war depicted the us as the heroes. and i recall the history books i read, in canadian schools on the war, written by americans…our children are being led astray instead of learning the true facts of the many great canadians that are true heroes

  24. It has so many lies about Iran revolution,
    Shah Pahlavi and the revolution were not like that,
    Argo may be shown in Islamic republic of Iran as soon as the Government see how good it’s made!!! because regime like that!! It had shown the revolution completely opposite 0f what happened in reality, it shows how bad was Shah and how good were the people that rose against Shah,although it is just the opposite!!!
    It’s really bad to see that somebody (without any true knowledge from the real people that had lived through those days) makes a movie that is just made to show how america was good,with all those history and politic mistakes!
    not to show how bad was it to be arrested in a foreign country in middle of the revolution :/

  25. They could have mixed it up. I mean, I agree the final act would have been a complete bore if they stuck to the real story. They could have kept the final act, but also showed the REAL Canadian role in the plan, and not just reduce it to a “We’ll just lie and say Canada did it” which I found quite shameful on Affleck’s behalf.

  26. Saw Argo last night and enjoyed without having done much research but was still able to spot most of the movie BS like how the Americans haven’t learned about political interference, how the Canadians and other non Americans were not given the credit they deserved . And without that the end statement on intergovernment cooperation did not make much sense think they could have included this and still have entertained but it would have been less go go America .

    • @Meg – So you admit to not doing much research but you were able to spot the BS huh? Sorry, your opinion holds no weight then.

      This was an attack on an American Embassy, not some raid into a foreign country so you’re statement about political interference is ignorant.

      If you were paying attention to the film (which it sounds like you weren’t) the Canadians took FULL credit for the rescue – the Americans claimed none.

      • I think you’re missing the point. The film stated that the Americans only claimed no involvement because they wanted to keep their involvement quiet due to not wanting to risk the other hostages lives which is true. Also true is the events in the film do not give enough credit to the Canadian involvement in the mission. The initial poster admitted to not doing much research, have you?

  27. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so insulted as a Canadian!! Never watched the movie, but I am so glad I didn’t waste my money on propaganda. Sure they gave us credit ad sure you wanted a good entertaining film, but you’ve loss a ton of money you could have gotten if the film didn’t have such false facts squeezed in like a pimple. I think if I saw the movie I would crying from all the pain of this embarrassment.

    It would have been soooo much more interesting if they switched between the different protagonists (and went with the fact that it was a canadian who came up with the whole thing and sheltered them) it would have been like Baccano!! (anime) where you piece together all the facts and have a hell of a time.

    Yes, I am Canadian!

    • Are you seriously complaining about a movie you’ve never seen?