Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reel People: Ben Affleck is Tony Mendez

Ben Affleck, Argo
The film is Argo. It is directed by Ben Affleck. The screenplay is written by Chris Terrio (his first feature film) based on an article written by Joshua Bearman for Wired in 2007. Bearman's article: "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran."

Antonio Joseph Mendez

Antonio Joseph Mendez was born in 1940 in Eureka, Nevada. His family of Latino origin having lived in Nevada for many generations, including during the Nevada gold rush.

At the age of 14, Antonio (Tony) moved to Colorado, where he would later attend the University of Colorado in Boulder. When he graduates he become a plumber and an illustrator.

A unique help wanted ad ends up being a unique CIA recruitment effort. Mendez, an atypical recruit was recruited for his artistic skills and would work primarily with the Office of Technical Service. His specialty was helping use disguises to get people out of challenging situations with radical transformations as well as forging foreign documents.

Tony was deeply involved in the Cold War and Vietnam war, but his CIA experience that is most frequently discussed is what is often called The "Canadian Caper."

The "Canadian Caper"
On November 4, 1979 the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over by militants, and 52 American's were held hostage for 444 days. On that first day of the take over, 6 American's evaded capture Robert Anders, Mark J. Lijek, Cora A. Lijek, Henry L. Schatz, Joseph D. Stafford, and Kathleen F. Stafford.

After a few days on the road, Anders contacted a friend at the Canadian embassy John Sheardown, who began to help the Americans at great risk to Canada and Canadians in Iran. The American's split themselves between the residence of John and Kathy Sheardown's home in and Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Both lived in northern Tehran.

Tony Mendez was pulled in by the CIA, and he and the Canadian government began to work together to devise a plan to get the 6 Americans out of Tehran. The risk of compromising the embassy hostages was very high, and Mendez was pulled in to assist. After some failed concepts that would minimize the 6 American's presence, an alternative plan was devised in which a Hollywood film team would be scouting movie shooting locations, including Tehran.

Mendez pulled in John Chambers, an Oscar winning make-up artist (Planet of the Apes) and regular acquantance of Mendez. Chamberlin would assist, and had the perfect script. He recommended an adaptation of the science fiction film based on Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. The options for the film had been recently purchased by Barry Gellar. Gellar had planned on making a theme park in Aurora, Colorado in association with the film with significant help from Jack Kirby (who had drawn a number of concept drawings) but the plan busted due to loss of funds from an embezzlement scandal with in Gellar's company.

Mendez and Chambers used the production drawings and script concepts as concept work for their own production of the film which would be called Argo and produced by a fake production company that they built out in Hollywood called Studio Six Productions.

With the blessing of Jimmy Carter, fake passports made by the Canadian government, and well designed plan, and documents and costumes delivered through the Canadian diplomats, Mendez went to Tehran to execute his plan playing the part of producer.

Despite some potential challenges with Joe Stafford's failure to play his part, the hostages made it out of Tehran on January 27, 1980 and were brought back to safety as they flew to Zurich, Switzerland before returning to the United States.

Tony Mendez Today

Mendez is now retired from the CIA, and is on the board of directors (along with wife Joanna) for the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.

He has also written two books: The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA and Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations That Helped Win the Cold War (Mendez co-authored Spy Dust with his wife Joanna).


In the 2012 film Argo (not the fake film used to help the hostages escape) Ben Affleck directs himself as Mendez. John Goodman plays the part of John Chambers. Other cast includes Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler (as Jimmy Carter's chief-of-staff Hamilton Jordan), Clea Duvall, Chris Messina, and Victor Garber (as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor).

The film depicts the events associated with Tony Mendez and the mission to help the 6 American's leave Tehran.

Ben Affleck's only Oscar nomination (and win) has come from co-writing the script to Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon. Although, as a director, his two previous feature length films Gone Baby Gone and The Town have earned traction in the award season, particularly for their supporting actors. Will the story be different with Affleck directing a historical biographic film?

Will Ben Affleck receive his first acting nomination (or perhaps his first directing nomination) for portraying this Real (Reel) Person

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