Argo, By Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

Lessons on defiltration for MI6, CIA and film students

This terse, gripping account concerns one of the most successful covert operations since the Second World War – the CIA's spiriting away or, to use the technical term, defiltration of six US embassy officials who evaded the round-up of their colleagues in Tehran during the chaotic violence of 1980. It may become a set text not only at CIA and MI6, but also for film students. Following Ben Affleck's acclaimed movie adaptation, the book provides an intriguing case study about the problems of turning fact into fiction.

Most of this weirdly unlikely caper – CIA man Antonio Mendez utilised a fake SF film project as a cover to get the Americans out – turns out to be true. The earlier success of Star Wars (filmed in Tunisia) meant that it was not wildly unfeasible for six Canadian filmmakers to be in Iran scouting locations for a script that starts, "Vishnu the Preserver and Yama-Dhama, Lord of Death, have covered the whole of heaven with what is said to be an impenetrable dome…"

Affleck's massaging of events was (with one exception) uncontroversial. A typical example occurs at the climax when the passage of the six ersatz Canadians plus Mendez (played by Affleck) through the airport deliciously ratchets up the tension, culminating in their airliner being chased along the tarmac. The literary version is somewhat less dramatic: "As the DC8 roared down the runway and into the air, I felt euphoric." There was no pursuit. If there had been, surely Iranian jets would have forced the plane back to earth.

The deviation that raised hackles was the suggestion that "Brits and Kiwis" turned the Americans away. Here's the reality from Mendez: "The British were kind hosts, and offered them a house of their own, fed them a warm meal, even prepared cocktails." However, the book reports a subsequent change of mind by the British chargé d'affaires, "the presence of the Americans was too dangerous for his own people and they had to move." Film students may be asked if Affleck's manipulation was excessive? Discuss.

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