LIVINGSTON, NJ - Carlos D. Luria, the CIA Executive Officer of the component that had primary responsibility for the ARGO case, gave a presentation Monday night at the Livingston Public Library. Luria explained to residents of the area the bizarre approach used in the ARGO operation and what differences there were from the actual events of ARGO to the movie version. The presentation was sponsored by The Friends of the Library Literary Liaisons Series.
ARGO tells the story of how the CIA disguised six Americans as a movie crew, helping them escape the country undetected, after they became stranded in hiding there. The Americans had become targets for Iranian capture when they escaped a mob attack on the U.S. Embassy they had worked at.
Recently, in 2012, the events were turned into a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. Despite enjoying the film, Luria said there were a number of inconsistencies between it and the actual events.
“The movie focuses on the escape. That was the easy part. The serious problem was how to protect the trapped Americans while they were still in Iran,” Luria said. “They had to be instructed on what it takes to be a film crew, look like a film crew, smell like a film crew. They had to be prepared to meet the public. This preparation took most of the eighty-eight days they were there.”
Luria went on to say that the movie failed to mention a key player in the ARGO operation: Bob Sidell, a retired movie makeup artist and CIA collaborator. “Sidell in addition to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck’s character in the film) coached the six American’s on how to be a movie crew.” Luria explained that Sidell interrogated the Americans making sure they knew every detail of their pseudo personalities back-hand and forward, right down to what they carried in their wallets. “I want to give Sidell credit for the work he did,” Luria said.
Another divergence from the actual events, Luria explained, was in the area of makeup.
Luria explained that due to the nature of the work the six Americans performed at the U.S. embassy, they could be easily recognized in public. The stranded Americans, thus, needed to be changed in more than just name, but in physical appearance as well.
The film alluded to how the film Planet of the Apes triggered an epiphany in the Mendez character, helping him to realize that the CIA could camouflage the six trapped Americans as a film crew. Luria said that the Planet of the Apes film triggered a similar, but slightly different epiphany for Mendez and the CIA in real life. “In the film, the humans wore masks to change and reshape their faces, making them look like apes.” The plan was thus brought forward to use masks and wigs to disguise the Americans’ identities.
Another detail Luria delved deeper into was the background work history of Tony Mendez, which was not touched upon in the movie. Tony Mendez initially had no intention of joining the CIA. “Tony Mendez wanted to be a graphic artist, but couldn’t get any work,” Luria said. “Everyone kept saying, ‘Your work is great, but it’s too realistic.’ People wanted fantasy art. Eventually he applied for a job in a Washington post wanted ad. The interviewer said, ‘Your work is precise, exact, and it’s exactly what we need.’” Mendez, of course, only later learned that he was applying for an Authentication position, where he would be forging paperwork for the CIA.
Following Luria’s presentation, questions were taken from the audience. “Are you going to have to kill us after this?” one man joked. “I meant to tell you about that before we started,” Luria answered.