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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 10/12/2012

Tony Mendez, the CIA agent behind the real ‘Argo’

Ben Affleck, center, with his “Argo” inspiration Tony Mendez, far left, and real-life “house guests” Kathleen Stafford, Bob Anders and Lee Schatz. At right are Pat Taylor and former Ambassador Ken Taylor (Keegan Bursaw/Embassy of Canada)
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner were working the room briskly at the Canadian Embassy Wednesday night, while Bryan Cranston mingled in the middle of the crowd, happily chatting up any “Breaking Bad” fan who grabbed him. John Goodman said his hellos and ducked out early, but David Petraeus and Barry Meyer (top brass at the CIA and Warner Bros., respectively) lingered through the speeches. Meanwhile, a quiet, slight, bearded man stuck to the shadows at the side of the room, taking it in.

Mendez at the “Argo” premiere in Washington Wednesday. Behind him is a movie poster with Ben Affleck, who portrays him in the new film. (Cliff Owen/AP)
“This is an amazing evening,” Tony Mendez said. “This is not what spies do.”

But this was, in fact, an evening that Mendez made happen. The 71-year-old retired CIA agent is the man who managed to sneak six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis by having them pose as a fake crew for a fake movie. He’s played by Affleck in “Argo,” the rapturously reviewed new movie about the long-classified operation.

To be fair, it was also an evening that Canada made happen. It was Canada’s ambassador to Iran and his wife who hid the Americans in their residence for three months, at great peril to their own lives, until Mendez could find a way to get them.

“Canada and the United States have always had each other’s backs,” the party’s host, Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer, told the room. “That’s an important message that’s as important today,” he said, citing the nations’ joint resolve to “not tolerate the acquisition of a nuclear bomb” by Iran.

Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer with Ben Affleck at the embassy’s reception for “Argo.” (Keegan Bursaw/Embassy of Canada)
“What this movie is about is cooperation,” said director-star Affleck, in his turn to play statesman at the podium, “the great things that are possible from diplomacy.”

Elsewhere in the room: Huma Abedin — the top Hillary Clinton aide, who facilitated the movie’s filming at the State Department — and husband Anthony Weiner, only rarely seen on the D.C. social circuit since his resignation from Congress. Also: Several veterans of the real-life Argo operation, including the brave ambassadorial couple, Ken and Patricia Taylor, and three of their “house guests,” as the hidden U.S. diplomats were politely dubbed. As a house guest, Lee Schatz couldn’t really speak to the accuracy of the movie: So much of it “is a piece of the experience we didn’t participate in,” he said. But “they really captured the tension on the streets” of Tehran — much like it is now across the Middle East, he said. (SEE ALSO: Kathy Stafford, real-life “houseguest,” recalls “Argo” operation, 11/18/12)

Mendez, who now lives in rural western Maryland and has written three books about his CIA years, worked as a consultant on the film. Who would his wife have cast as him?

Tommy Lee Jones,” said Jonna Mendez, herself a CIA veteran. “But now everyone’s too old. Ben’s exactly the right age.”

Bryan Cranston, left, as Jack O’Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo." (Claire Folger/Warner Bros. via AP)
Was it strange to see his story on the screen? Absolutely, he said. “The 30-foot-tall face of Ben Affleck, saying ‘My name is Tony Mendez’?” And even though he knew the ending — lived it, in fact — “it scared the bejeezus out of me. I didn’t think they were going to make it out of there!”

After all, the movie takes a few liberties with his story. There’s a car chase that never happened, clashes that are pure inventions. But a man who resorted to Hollywood subterfuge to execute his operation is okay with the Hollywood veneer.

“It adheres to the spirit of the story,” he said. In Tehran, they felt worried — but in a movie, you need to externalize that worry via action. “Music and lights and all that stuff play into a movie. It’s an entertainment.”

Related: Tony Mendez profile from Washington Post: Seeing is Deceiving, 2/15/00

Argo: Movie review by Ann Hornaday, 10/11/12

Ben Affleck on ‘Argo’ and why he owes his directing career to a monster called Bennifer, 10/5/12

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 10/12/2012

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