Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Argo" by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

Like many people, I saw the movie version of Argo and enjoyed it (though I thought Lincoln was better). It's a great, tension-filled spy caper and feel-good-about-America film. Though the true account isn't quite as dramatic as the movie (but truth be told, there's still plenty of drama), it also does a better job of providing a comprehensive look at the CIA's work, which is interesting in and of itself.

The book is told by Mendez (played by Ben Affleck in the film), the decorated career CIA agent who orchestrated the rescue of six American embassy employees from Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980. Surprisingly to me, though it makes complete sense, Mendez was originally hired into the CIA because of his skills as an artist. He and others worked essentially as forgers, creating paperwork, stamps, whatever was needed for CIA agents and the people they worked with. I have to imagine this department is significantly different today, mostly relying on computer graphic technicians.

However, Mendez didn't stay just in that area, as he eventually rose to be Chief of Disguise! (okay, and then Chief of Authentication, but that's not exciting) How badass is that? I mean, did he have business cards that said "chief of disguise"? And he actually created disguises, a la Mission:Impossible! So I spent a lot of the early book geeking out that at least some of the cliche old spy movie stuff was actually true.

A majority of the book is spent on back story, establishing Mendez's career in the CIA and his department's workings. He also recounts several other successful exfiltrations he led. The actual exfiltration of the embassy employees only comes in the last few chapters.

One of the strengths of the film was the tense atmosphere that pervaded the action. Mendez also works to ramp up the tension, though he does so by repeatedly telling us that Iran was dangerous rather than showing. The movie also creates tension by making up lots of things that didn't actually occur, like taking a tour through Tehran's bazaar, being stopped at the airport and only making it out by showing the guards the movie storyboards, or the last minute call to the fake studio in Hollywood. In truth, the exfiltration went smoothly, to plan, without any hiccups or any moments of danger. But, that's just testament to the work that went into carrying it out successfully.

Though Mendez portrays the CIA positively, he also recognizes the enormous and problematic bureaucracy involved, especially compared to a country like Canada, which quickly and smoothly aided U.S. efforts in a way that put our government to shame. In the need to keep the CIA's secret, Canada received credit for the employees' escape (they did house the employees in their Iran embassy for three months), but such credit seems rightly due. Mendez and his colleagues may have orchestrated what happened, but Canada took much of the risk.

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