It's almost a fortnight before the Academy Awards, and the race for Best Picture seems to be between the early favorite -- Steven Spielberg's splendid "Lincoln" -- and the hot Hollywood bet, Ben Affleck's "Argo." Based on a true story of how a fake sci-fi film was used as a ruse to extricate six Americans from the Canadian ambassador's residence in Tehran in 1980, "Argo" upset "Lincoln" at the Golden Globe Awards, and last week Affleck won the Directors Guild Award.

Affleck not only directed "Argo," but played Tony Mendez, the CIA officer behind the so-called "Canadian caper." The real Tony Mendez will speak Monday night at a "Heroes Among Us" event at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.

"Hero" isn't a handle he easily accepts. "The old code used to be, 'Never celebrate your successes or explain your failures,'" Mendez said in an interview. "It's kind of hard to have an ego in that situation. What you want is to be romantic, so that you can internalize what you've done. Save the world today and not have to tell anybody about it."

When Mendez was asked by then-CIA Director George Tenet to talk about the escape from Tehran, he told Tenet, "You've got to be kidding. This is our best secret." But Mendez said Tenet told him that, "Every so often you need a fair audit."

So Mendez is talking. Laconic about his heroics, he is loquacious about Iran, the CIA, movies and magic.

About his "only in the movies" plan (or, more accurately, only with the movies), Mendez said: "The idea was born out of desperation, but we did have a longstanding, robust relationship with Hollywood. ... They are patriots. They never hesitated, in my time, to answer the call."

The fake film may have been futuristic, but the plan's principles were timeless. Mendez sold the CIA, and then convinced the six Americans, to pose as a Canadian film crew. Hollywood helped by acting as if "Argo" were actually a promising project, including setting up a phony production company.

"We were using the principles of magic and delusion and suspending disbelief -- all words of magic specialists that have been used on the battlefield for many centuries," Mendez said.

"In order to do a good deception operation, you need to know who your audience is, and what is your stage: That's what magicians do ... manipulate the scene.

"A lot of people ask 'what did you guys really do?' We established confidence in them, and it worked. In this case we used an upside-down approach by putting the most attractive thing on stage. Everybody's looking at it because they want to see what Hollywood looks like. ... That was part of my pitch [to CIA superiors. The Iranians] will know what Hollywood is. They always wanted to meet someone from Hollywood, and if you get them involved, they would be excited and ecstatic."

The plan worked. Reflecting on the scheme's success, Mendez sees the intelligence and entertainment industries as kindred spirits, both trading in illusion. "That's why we get along so well with Hollywood: We are of the same cloth," he said.

"Same cloth" is not a description many would use to describe our torn relationship with Iran -- the subject of this month's Minnesota International Center's Great Decisions dialogue.

Mendez admires the Iranian people, if not their government: "Their culture is rich. Their people are wonderful -- smart, attractive, been in the top echelons since the early part of history. But there has always been trouble at the crossroads."

Nowadays, the crossroads looks like the setting for a collision over Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program. Mendez's description of the government is not encouraging: "The Iranian fundamentalists seem predisposed to shooting off their foot. They would rather blow up the table than come to the table."

As for the U.S. government during the hostage crisis, Mendez describes President Jimmy Carter as "very much down in the weeds, in the details. That was a little unusual. It carries a little more weight, but also more baggage. He had the energy crisis and more troubles."

Mentioning Carter's "malaise speech," he added that, "It wasn't a fun presidency. He had not only the weight of the operation but a great political risk. I think he comported himself just fine. In my view he did the best he could -- it wasn't terrible. Nobody [among the hostages] was killed, as he always reminded people."

"It's the same way about the movie. In our movie there's no gunfire, there's no violence. We see the corpse hanging from the crane, but that's about as far as it goes."

Some experts have suggested that Affleck took historical license in "Argo." But that doesn't change the fundamental facts of the Canadian caper.

"Movies are not history books," Mendez said. "They're entertainment. That's why it says 'based on a true story.'"

Including this truth: Mendez is a hero among us.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to