On Nov. 4, 1979, thousands of Islamic revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They seized 66 hostages whose captivity stretched on for 444 days. Often dubbed "America Held Hostage," the crisis received more media coverage than any news event since World War II.

And yet, all these years later, most Americans do not know one of the most gripping aspects of the incident. The true story of "Operation Argo" remained top secret until the Clinton administration.

Amid the chaos of the mob, six Americans slipped out the back door and hid in the home of Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor. They remained in hiding until CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez hatched a scheme to rescue them: He sneaked them out of the country undercover as a Hollywood film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi flick.

Mendez called this dangerously outlandish scheme "Operation Argo." But perhaps the most unbelievable thing about this caper is that it worked. Until the facts were declassified in 1997, the rescue had been entirely credited to the Canadians.

Ben Affleck has said he was instantly attracted to turning the story into a movie precisely because it "sounds utterly absurd. I understand that, because it seems completely unbelievable, but the fact that it happened is what makes it even more fascinating."

Now with tensions between the U.S. and Iran again at a boiling point and the hunger for oil at its peak, Hollywood has turned its own role in the drama into a spy thriller that has Oscar written all over it. Directed by and starring Affleck, "Argo" takes us behind the scenes for one of the most implausible CIA operations ever.


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"Argo stands out in my mind for the sheer audacity of the plan," says noted espionage historian H. Keith Melton, "the willingness of our Canadian neighbors to provide blank passports to be altered on site and the sheer courage of the two CIA officers that went into Tehran to personally escort the diplomats through the airport under the very nose of the dreaded Revolutionary Guard.

"Tony exhibited courage, resolve, ingenuity and a single-minded focus on saving the lives of the diplomats."

Shot in a grainy 1970s style, this taut nail-biter combines the grit of a documentary with the usual Hollywood car chase and buxom babe tropes. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play Hollywood shysters who help the CIA perfect and maintain its cover long enough to get the six embassy workers to safety. Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") plays Mendez's crusty supervisor Jack O'Donnell, who has to defend the harebrained scheme to the higher-ups.

"This is the story of a guy trying to do the right thing in a bureaucracy that doesn't make that easy," says screenwriter Chris Terrio.

Mendez, who was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor for the rescue, headed to Tehran as revolutionary forces roamed the streets. He hoped to waltz the six houseguests right into the Tehran airport and onto a commercial airliner at a time when all Americans were automatically the enemy. Beheadings, hangings and torture were the common fate of anyone suspected of allegiance to America.

A checkable backstory was the backbone of the gambit. Mendez started a production company Studio Six Productions." He got stories planted in the trade press about the movie. And he rented office space on the Columbia lot (the same space Michael Douglas had just used for "The China Syndrome"). He also created a logo, business cards and stationery, all of which are currently on view as part of "Spy: The Exhibit" now at New York's Discovery Times Square.

To create a lie that would have traction in Iran, the script for "Argo" suggested a "Star Wars" ripoff with a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor that took pains to glorify the rights of people to take back their homeland from foreign oppressors. The story line was also intentionally obtuse so that no one would question the locations being scouted. Of course, it was still a long shot. In the movie, one of the six hostages more derisively dubs it "theater of the absurd."

The insanity of the plan was not lost on Mendez. In his book about the "Argo" mission, he notes that the name was perfect because "it was the name of the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed in to liberate the Golden Fleece against impossible odds."

The bizarre nature of the story is precisely why Affleck and Terrio took such pains to give the film a deep sense of historical and geopolitical context. They wanted the audience to take the film's message seriously.

"What I hope people come away with is the complexity of what happened, the fact that there is no antagonist here," says the screenwriter, "On all sides of this, there were people trying to do the right thing."

Indeed, while the film celebrates the heroism of the CIA operatives, it also suggests that America played a role in setting off the violence that engulfed Iran. The movie begins with a short history lesson that chronicles the U.S. installation of the Shah at the expense of the democratically elected prime minister, who had nationalized the country's oil industry. His ouster set the stage for revolution.

"The culpability is there in the film, that in some ways we made our own bed, but the movie is really about a greater cause," says Cranston. "It's about people who put themselves at risk in order to save others, and there is no greater good than that.

"Their credo is that no one gets left behind, and they mean it."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her stories at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at www.facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage