The climax of the movie “Argo” takes place at the airport in Tehran. Six Americans, having hidden in Iran for three months, are taking this one chance to get out of a country that’s embroiled in revolution and anger. Their cover is that they’re part of a science-fiction film crew; their guide is Tony Mendez, a C.I.A. operative.
I edited the Wired magazine story—written by Joshuah Bearman—that would eventually be turned into the movie. Bearman knew that the airport scene was where the story should end. The six refugees were indeed terrified, and they were indeed risking their lives. But facts are facts, and real climaxes can be anticlimactic.
The last section of the magazine article is all about the building tension. “The Americans were momentarily terrified when the officer disappeared with the rest of the crew’s passports.” But there’s no action. “But then he absentmindedly wandered back to the counter with some tea and waved the group on to the departure lounge without bothering to match the yellow and white forms.” And then, “The wait was agonizing… giving the others serious jitters… there was no backup plan… the Revolutionary Guards were arriving, wandering around in fatigues and harassing passengers.… A mechanical problem caused a delay… the Revolutionary Guards were starting to turn their attention to foreign passengers.” Nothing happened, though. Soon, it was wheels up and Bloody Marys in the air.
The Hollywood version is all action. There is an urgent call to the White House. People scream and run. There are locked doors, guns firing, and cars racing down the runway after a plane. Watch the last thirty seconds of the trailer if you haven’t seen the film. It’s Hollywood. Breezes turn into hurricanes; peace becomes pandemonium; James Taylor becomes James Bond.
Bearman pitched the story in the summer of 2006, after he learned about it from David Klawans, an independent movie producer. Bits of the story had come out already: there had even been nuggets published that year in Mark Bowden’s book on the hostage crisis, “Guests of the Ayatollah.” Sometimes great magazine story ideas are hidden, and sometimes they’re obvious. Bearman found this one sitting, murkily, somewhere in between.
At Wired, at least at the time, every pitch was graded on a scale of one to six by everyone on staff, and then there was a meeting in which the pitches were presented in reverse order of their scores, along with their standard deviations. This one scored a 4.0, coming in fifth out of the twelve that day. It was clearly a good tale, but it wasn’t clearly appropriate for a magazine about optimism and the future. It involved science fiction, which is Wired, but it involved the Carter Administration, which is not. “This is total mission creep, but I think we should do it,” Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief, said at the end of the debate over whether to assign the story.
At first, Bearman couldn’t get Tony Mendez to talk. Finding him was easy; but Mendez thought his story might work for Hollywood, and he wanted promises that he’d be involved in any negotiations. Ultimately, Bearman needed approval not from the C.I.A but from Mendez’s agent. He got it, and then everything moved swiftly along. “Wow. Wow,” e-mailed Bob Cohn, the executive editor, when he read the first draft. “Why’s it Wired? (don’t even try — it’s not.)” Ultimately, Bearman turned in something terrific. Jeremy LaCroix and Scott Dadich in the art department added beautiful storyboards, and the meticulous checker, Angela Watercutter, kept everything real. The piece was optioned by George Clooney. Eventually Ben Affleck took on the project. On Sunday, he may be giving a speech or two.
Besides the airport scene, the movie is full of historical embroidery. There wasn’t a dramatic trip to the bazaar. There wasn’t a housekeeper tempted to turn the refugees in, though the guests did worry about a gardener. Look at this picture, showing Tony Mendez and some of the escapees. The escapees look a great deal like the characters in the film. Mendez, however, looks more like Groucho Marx than Ben Affleck.
The historical alterations are tacky, given that the film repeatedly pokes fun at Hollywood. “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day,” one character says. As Anthony Lane wrote in his review of the film, “It struck me as a bit rich, however, to make such sport of Hollywood deceitfulness and then to round off your movie with an expert helping of white lie.”
But tacky is different from damaging. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” the historical record is altered to make it seem like torture, one of this country’s great sins, was a virtue. (“Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn,” Jane Mayer wrote in a devastating critique of the film.) None of “Argo” ’s fibs really matter. They don’t change the way we think about history or politics. They don’t alter the emotional truth of the story. There are certain stories about the past that are so good they can be squeezed into magazines about the future. And there are certain Hollywood conventions that we can let slip in Regal Cinema.
Illustration by Concepción Studios.