By Arturo R. García
The more you read about Antonio Mendez, the more his exploits make Burn Notice look like Get Smart: the Colorado native who grew up in a single-parent household went from answering a random want ad to a 25-year career in the CIA as an “espionage artist,” specializing in helping assets get out of tough situations.
“I would say the whole thing was like James Bond but even better. I was involved in Moscow creating tradecraft, knocking the socks off the KGB,” he told Open Your Eyes magazine in 2008. “If you are surrounded by an army of that kind of counterintelligence and you can still do your business, Bond doesn’t even get close to that.”
Mendez went on to write two memoirs about his experiences in the field. But his most celebrated operation, an extraction of six U.S. diplomats from Iran in the first days of the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni, was the subject of a 2007 article in Wired Magazine. As Joshuah Bearman wrote, this particular plan would take a more cinematic turn – literally – than the usual covert actions: Mendez actually created a fake movie production.
To build his cover, Mendez put $10,000 into his briefcase and flew to Los Angeles. He called his friend John Chambers, the veteran makeup artist who had won a 1969 Academy Award for Planet of the Apes and also happened to be one of Mendez’s longtime CIA collaborators. Chambers brought in a special effects colleague, Bob Sidell. They all met in mid-January and Mendez briefed the pair on the situation and his scheme. Chambers and Sidell thought about the hostages they were seeing each night on television and quickly declared they were in.
Mendez knew they had to plan the ruse down to the last detail. “If anyone checks,” he said, “we need that foundation to be there.” If they were exposed, it could embarrass the government, compromise the agency, and imperil their lives and the lives of the hostages in the embassy. The militants had said from the beginning that any attempted rescue would lead to executions.
In just four days, Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell created a fake Hollywood production company. They designed business cards and concocted identities for the six members of the location-scouting party, including all their former credits. The production company’s offices would be set up in a suite at Sunset Gower Studios on what was formerly the Columbia lot, in a space vacated by Michael Douglas after he finished The China Syndrome.
Bearman’s article chronicling Mendez’s faux production, Argos, has now been adapted into a screenplay of the same name, to be produced by George Clinton’s Smokehouse films and directed by Ben Affleck. Great opportunity for a Latino actor, right? Well, according to Variety magazine, Affleck’s already found the perfect leading man:
Given Affleck’s much-hyped involvement in the Project Greenlight series years ago, where he helped make the career of fledgling directors, it’s disappointing to hear he won’t take the same chance with a Latino actor for Argos. As shown on the graph at right, taken from a 2006 study by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, shows that only Latino actors are requested only 5.2% of casting breakdowns, and get 1.2% of lead roles. Unless Affleck and company reverse course, Argos could go down as a missed opportunity on par with 21, which erased the real-life Asian-Americans who inspired the film in favor of “more marketable” white leads.
Thanks to reader Mike G. for the tip and the links!