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Ben Affleck tells South County man's story in 'Argo'

October 11, 2012|By Crystal Schelle |
  • Tony Mendez, who lives in Pleasant Valley in Southern Washington County, is a retired CIA spy. Mendez's book "Argo," about his experience helping six American Embassy workers escape from 1980s Iran, was turned into a movie of the same title. Ben Affleck directed the film as well as portrayed Mendez.
By The Associated Press

Antonio “Tony” Mendez’s experience as a CIA spy during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, and subsequent years, is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

It’s a nail-biting story filled with harrowing moments of high-stakes espionage and heart-beat minutes when life could so have easily become death.

So when Mendez, who has since retired from the CIA and lives in Pleasant Valley in southern Washington County, wrote a book about his experience, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking.

Today, “Argo” (R), which is based on Mendez’s mission in Iran, opens in theaters nationwide.

The mission

In Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran. They gathered 52 Americans and held them hostage for 444 days. They were released on Jan. 20, 1981.

But during those first moments of confusion when the Iranians had jumped over the gates to the embassy, six Americans escaped out the back and found refuge in the Canadian Embassy.

The Houseguests, as they were referred, had escaped the Embassy, but they were stuck in Iran. And it was up to the United States government to figure out how to get them out.

Mendez, along with a team, had to devise a plan to get the Houseguests out without adding to the troubles already in Iran. Their idea? To use his connections in Hollywood to make it look like they were filming a sci-fi movie titled “Argo.”

In 2000, Mendez penned his story “The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA.” In the biography, his time spent in Iran was detailed in a chapter. The story was expanded for his latest book, “Argo,” which was released last month. His co-writer was Matt Baglio.

Making the real ‘Argo’

Playing Mendez is Ben Affleck, who also directed and produced the film. George Clooney and Grant Heslov were also attached as producers.

Affleck, who stands at 6 foot, 2 inches tall, plays Mendez who is 5 foot, 7 1/2 inches tall. Mendez jokingly said he has one problem with Affleck playing a younger version of himself. “He’s not good-looking enough to play me,” he dead panned.

Having his life portrayed on the big screen has been a little surreal for Mendez.

“It is a little strange to see (Affleck’s) face on the big screen and him saying the line, ‘My name is Tony Mendez,” Mendez, 72, said during a telephone interview before the Washington, D.C., premiere.

All joking aside, for Mendez the mission was one of the most harrowing moments of his career.

Although the book is always different than a film, Mendez said he is pleased with how Affleck treated his story. He said Affleck was true “to the spirit of it.”

“Movies are never like the book,” Mendez said. “They have to be by design, entertaining and maybe truthful, but not absolutely. But he did a great job from taking from what he could see and feel and turning it into pictures.”

For Mendez, making a movie was a cover, but for Affleck and the rest of the crew on the real movie, they had to be able to mold the facts into something suitable for the big screen.

“They had a special way of looking at events and life, and so forth,” Mendez said.

Eventually, Mendez’s story ended up in the hands of screenwriter Chris Terrio, who based his screenplay on Mendez’s “The Master of Disguise” and a Wired magazine article called “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.

“We fell in love with each other,” Mendez said. “I’m just kidding there. But we really bonded. Not only did I spend several days with him at my place, I would also get a phone call in the night saying ‘Does this make sense’?”

One aspect that was changed from his life into the book was that, at the time, Mendez had three children, Toby, Amanda and Ian. In the movie, he has one child who was originally named Michael.

“My youngest (Ian) at the time by this time had passed away. What made it hard was that he was written out of his life by the writers in Hollywood,” he said.

Mendez said he asked his other two children how they felt about having their lives written out. “They said, ‘We understand the need for making things simple, but we want to know who the hell Michael is.’”

Mendez said they asked if he could get them to change the child’s name into the film to Ian. “I asked and they did,” he said.

The original ‘Argo’

Although the “Argo” mission is being touted as being “declassified” in 1997, Mendez said it wasn’t that easy. He had to submit it to the CIA Publication Review Board and it was up to the board members to decide what stories they wanted to make public.

“In this case, it was opened up because they wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary (of the CIA),” he said. “And they wanted to pick 50 people for 50 years to celebrate their counterculture. It was something I thought we should keep secret, but they convinced me it was a good thing to celebrate. So we did it.”

Anyway, he said, there are still parts of that mission that will always remain classified. “There always is, or I would just be a sign on a street or something that,” he said.

One question is whether “Argo” could have been pulled off in today’s digital age. Mendez thinks it could.

“It just depends on how you can backstop it. Ideally, backstopping in the distance as well as upclose,” he said. “It comes down to the ability to the person you’re getting ready to do that with. It’s more about demeanor than anything.”

The legacy of ‘Argo’

For his mission, Mendez received the Intelligence Star of Valor. Today, it is at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where he and his wife, Jonna, who is also retired from the  CIA, are members of the board.

Recently, Mendez might be spending a lot of time reflecting about his “Argo” mission, but he doesn’t want to the answer “what if.”

“I don’t go there. Whatever worked is great. You can’t go back and say, ‘I dodged a bullet here,’ ‘maybe it was the wrong thing to do,’ you can’t do that,” he said. “You have to keep your confidence up above 90 percent so you don’t go back and sharpshoot yourself.”

He said he does regret that America didn’t take credit for the mission. Instead, the Americans deflected the story and made Canada as the hero of the hour.

“What we got was a footnote in history saying the American CIA helped the Canadians, but the Canadians did most of the work,” he said. “We decided to do that immediately after the mission was successfully orchestrated. The Canadian Ambassador was instructed to become rich and famous, now until ever-more. He did that and he did a real good job. Nothing works like success, you know.”

So what was harder for Mendez to participate in the fake “Argo” or the real “Argo?”

“In terms of the shear effort, I have to say the fake movie was more work intensive,” he said. “But when you think about it, it was really harder to get the senior officials in the CIA and the other areas to approve it. So the hardest thing in any operation that is risk-intensive, it’s harder to sell it than it is to create it. What I mean ‘to sell it’ is to believe it and to prove it without a lot of handwringing.”

Times for “Argo” (R)

  • Leitersburg Cinemas, 20145 Leitersburg Pike, Hagerstown —  Fri. - 1:35, 4:10, 6:45, 9:15 p.m.; Sat. - 10:50 a.m., 1:25, 4, 6:40, 9:15 p.m.; Sun. - 1:35, 4:10, 6:45 p.m.
  • Regal Valley Mall Stadium 16, Valley Mall, Halfway —  Fri./Sat. - Noon, 2:50, 4:30, 6, 7:30, 9, 10:20 p.m.; Sun. - Noon, 2:50, 4, 6, 7, 9, 9:50 p.m.
  • Carmike Cinema, Chambersburg Mall, 3055 Black Gap Road  Chambersburg, Pa. —  Fri. - 6:50, 9:40 p.m.; Sat./Sun. - 1:05, 4, 6:50, 9:40 p.m.
  • Berkeley Plaza 7, Berkeley Plaza Shopping Center, 267 Monroe St., Martinsburg, W.Va. —  Fri./Sat./Sun. - 1, 3:30, 6:45, 9:10 p.m.
  • Regal Martinsburg Stadium 10, 950 Foxcroft Ave., Martinsburg, W.Va.  — Fri./Sat./Sun. - 1, 4, 4:45, 7, 7:45, 9:45 p.m.

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