Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review: Argo by Antonio Mendez

     This year, we've had two big spy movies hit theaters. One was, of course, James Bond, and James Bond is all well and good. But the other was Argo, and this one? This one actually happened. (Although word has it that the film played fast and loose with facts. Go figure.)
     I decided to read the story behind the film before seeing the actual movie. I wasn't disappointed. There was little action involved, but it was very suspenseful, and gives a good picture of the not-so-glamorous life of a CIA agent, which appears to involve mainly bureaucracy and astonishing amounts of coffee.

     In 1979, militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking over 50 hostages, believing them to be “spies”. Six diplomats, however, managed to escape, and eventually took shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador. When they made it out of Iran safely, Canada was allowed to take full credit for their rescue; but now, some 30 years later, Anthony Mendez, a CIA officer, has told the story (in as much detail as the Department of Redundancy Department will allow).
     “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History” recounts the history leading up to the embassy attack and the harrowing months spent in devising plans to rescue both the hostages and the escaped diplomats. Mendez does not hold back on describing the various political elements that led to the unrest in Iran, including those elements that reflect badly on the U.S. (Ah, well, wouldn’t be the first time.) We also get some good description of how the CIA operated 30 years ago. Pretty sure they’ve changed things since then, and that’s the reason Mendez is allowed to write this book now. He also does a good job of portraying just how much Canada really helped us. One criticism of the movie I’ve been hearing is that they take much of the credit away from Canada, even though it’s pretty clear we never would have gotten very far without them. They provided shelter, and fake passports and IDs to the escaped diplomats, who wouldn't have gotten far if they were suspected of being American. The book is tense, which shows that Mendez knows how to tell a good story. We know the diplomats escape, yet even to the end you start to wonder: Will it really work? Will the multiverse open up and you get thrust into a world where it failed?
     Joking aside, this is an excellent book, and a fascinating look into real spy life. (Also, Mendez has apparently written other books about his life as a CIA agent. Sounds like more fun reading.)

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