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.”