Retired CIA operative Tony Mendez, whose exploits the Oscar-winning “Argo” documents, shared his story before 600 guests Thursday at the One from the Heart awards breakfast in Palo Alto.
Mendez appeared at the annual event, a benefit for Pathways Home Health, Hospice & Private Duty, with his wife, Jonna. Expressing their personal appreciation for the compassionate care provided by organizations like Pathways, the Mendezes recalled how important hospice care was for their loved ones during their final days – Mendez’s first wife died of lung cancer and Jonna’s mother of brain cancer.
But the backstory of how Mendez conceived and successfully executed the CIA operation to extricate six U.S. diplomats who escaped capture during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis took center stage at the event.
Supplemented by film clips, the couple offered details on the rescue mission, dubbed the “Canadian Caper,” and the making of “Argo,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012.
Before gaining worldwide attention, the operation was shrouded in secrecy for more than 12 years. With security tight in the wake of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students, Mendez said the CIA’s options for rescuing the diplomats, who took refuge in the home of a Canadian diplomat, were limited.
“There were only bad options, and this one was the best one we had,” said Mendez of the ultimate plan to send CIA operatives posing undercover as a movie crew to gain access to the diplomats.
Working with makeup artist John Chambers, Mendez recounted how he set up a fake production company and worked with a Hollywood producer to develop a phony science-fiction film, providing a realistic front for the film crew and lending credibility to their plan. The ploy was so convincing, he said, that top directors of the day, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, submitted scripts to the fake film company.
Despite reservations from the U.S. Department of State about how such an absurd plan could work, the operation succeeded.
The art of disguise is a powerful medium for deception, as proven by the complex phony movie scheme, but Mendez revealed that “Argo” took some creative liberties in interpreting the actual operation.
Among the fictionalized elements in the film is the truck chase at the airport. Although it’s one of Mendez’s favorite scenes, in reality, he said, his team waited an hour and a half in Iranian airspace with F-4 fighters nearby before takeoff.
The evening prior to the breakfast, the Mendezes put in an appearance at the home of Pathways supporters Gunilla and Tom Follett of Los Altos.
For more information, visit pathwayshealth.org.