SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 – 1991 & Iran – The Iran Hostage Crisis;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring & Citizenship.
AGE: Age: 14+; MPAA Rating — R for language and some violent images;
Drama; 2012; 120 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Note: The film focuses on the good fortune of six American diplomats who escaped the 1979 take-over of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants. It takes attention away from more important stories including: (1) the American intervention in Iranian affairs which led to the brutal and repressive 25 year reign of the Shaw, an intervention that continues to be a major factor in the long-lasting hatred of the U.S. by many people in Iran; and (2) the plight of the 52 American diplomats who were held hostage and sometimes tortured for 444 days after the embassy take-over. TWM recommends this film only for the purpose of showing students some of the risks of getting history through movies that are “based on” real events, even if the facts presented in the film are themselves reasonably accurate. Since the vast majority of adults do not read history books but instead learn about the past from movies “based on” historical events, instruction in the proper use of historical fiction will be a lasting benefit for most students.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction — note that discussion questions #s 1 & 2 are derived from this worksheet; and
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
This is the story of the rescue of six American diplomats who escaped when Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took the embassy staff hostage.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
2012 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published; 2012 American Film Institute Awards: Movie of the Year; 2012 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score; Best Achievement in Sound Editing; Best Achievement in Sound Mixing; Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Alan Arkin);
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel; John Goodman as John Chambers; Victor Garber as Ken Taylor; Tate Donovan as Bob Anders Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek; Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford; Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz; Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek; Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford
Ambassador Ken Taylor and
Dr. Patricia Taylor
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
The film can serve as the basis for discussion and writing with respect to the risks and benefits of using movies as historical fiction. With careful scaffolding, the film can also be a platform from which students can explore lessons about the risks of causing regime change in other countries and U.S./Iranian relations since WWII.
Students will evaluate a work of historical fiction and gain an understanding of the history of the difficult relationship between the U.S. and Iran over the last 60 years.
None for the recommended age group, if the lesson plan is followed.
Make sure that your children know that this is not the major story of U.S. Iranian relations or the hostage crisis. See Note at the beginning of the Guide.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Introduction: Placing the Events Shown in the Movie in Context
Teachers can introduce the film and place the escape of the six American diplomats in context by providing direct instruction covering the following topics. In the alternative, students can introduce the film themselves. Have students prepare and deliver, individually or in groups, five-minute class presentations on relevant topics. As time permits, topics can include the following:
- the strategic importance of Iran to the West during WWII and after;
- the history of U.S. intervention in Iran during the 1950s leading to the installation of the Shaw as the ruler of the country;
- the role of the Cold War in shaping U.S. policy toward Iran;
- the rule of the Shaw of Iran, it’s benefits and costs to the people of Iran;
- the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979;
- the structure of the government of Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979;
- the 1979-1981 U.S./Iranian hostage crisis;
- how the U.S. and Iran came to cooperate in limited ways after the hostage crisis, including the Iran-Contra scandal; and
- current relations between the Iranian government and the West, including the Iranian nuclear weapons program and Western sanctions.
After Showing the Film
Either through direct instruction or by way of a report from students, describe for the class what is accurate and inaccurate about the movie. (If students are assigned to report on the accuracy of the film, have them read, before they see the movie, Joshua Berman’s WIRED article entitled “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran or Mr. Mendez’ book, Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.) The discussion should cover the following points. Another alternative is to have all students read Berman’s article and give students Assignment #1, below.
A Note on Historical Accuracy
This is a reasonably accurate work of historical fiction with respect to the way in which the hostages were rescued. The primary historical error in the story is the focus on the CIA and the minimization of the role played by the Canadian government in the rescue. The Canadians played a major role in the rescue, issuing six fake passports for the diplomats (this required a secret act of the Canadian Parliament), creating Canadian identities for the American diplomats, and smuggling into Iran via diplomatic pouch materials to make the escape possible, such as the false passports, other false identification, disguise kits provided by the CIA, and movie paraphernalia to support the Argo cover story. Moreover, throughout the 79 days during which the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his wife, Dr. Patricia Taylor, provided shelter to their “houseguests,” Ambassador Taylor and the Canadian government played the lead role in protecting the hostages. By hiding the houseguests, Ambassador Taylor and his wife put their own safety at substantial risk. The British and New Zealand diplomats in Iran were also helpful.
Many of the incidents used to build tension at the bazaar and at the airport did not take place. The entire episode at the bazaar was fictional. The trip to the airport, through immigration, and onto the plane went without a hitch, except that the plane had needed a minor repair and departure was delayed for an hour. There was no call by a Revolutionary Guard to Hollywood (although an office had been set up and the call would have been answered) and there was no chase of the plane by gun toting revolutionaries on the tarmac. The Iranians had no idea that the diplomats were trying to escape. The Argo exfiltration operation went off very smoothly. However, certainly the diplomats trying to get out of Tehran were nervous and tense. It could be said that the incidents used to build tension were essentially truthful, whether they happened or not.
1. Given the fact that the audience will take away from this film a vivid impression of the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, do you think that, on the whole, this film improves the viewer’s understanding of the important historical events as they actually occurred? Justify your conclusion.
There is no one correct response. The discussion should include criticisms of the film as historical fiction if the audience takes it to be the definitive story of the hostage crisis because it focuses on the rescue of six diplomats taking the focus away from more important issues such as the reason for Iranian hostility to the U.S. and the plight of the 52 hostages held at the embassy. The discussion should also include a mention of the failure of the film to fully acknowledge the role of Ambassador Taylor and the Canadian government in protecting and freeing the hostages.
2. Historical fiction is still fiction and uses the techniques of fiction. What elements in the film create the suspense that keeps viewers on edge even though they know the outcome of the story?
Most of the tension stems from the race against time. The Iranians are busy reassembling shredded paper, and they are hunting for the missing American personnel who are now pretending to be part of a film crew. There is a close call at the bazaar and at the airport, and the phone call to the supposed studio is nearly missed. The housekeeper is in deep trouble should she not be able to flee to Iraq, a feat she barely accomplishes. There are several others that students may describe. In the discussion, note that all of these except perhaps for the first two are fictional.
3. Who was the primary audience for the Argo cover used in this exfiltration? Why did the CIA go into such depth as creating a fake production company, manning offices in Hollywood, having the Canadians create fake identities for the houseguests? (Hint: The primary audience wasn’t the Iranians at the airport or anywhere else.)
Antonio Mendez, the CIA officer who planned the operation and escorted the houseguests to freedom wrote:
The first rule in any deception operation is to understand who your audience is. In the case of Argo, the audience was not the Iranians but the houseguests [the 6 employees of the embassy] themselves. While we’d backstopped the cover story to the hilt, the people we really wanted to convince were those six American diplomats. Of course, if any Iranian officials had actually checked, their story would have seemed legitimate. But knowing that this is what sold the cover story to the houseguests in the first place. They believed in it, which gave them the confidence to carry it off. Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, Viking, 2012, page 298.
4. Describe some of the risks and benefits of engineering regime change in other countries.
There is no one correct answer. Certainly, the U.S. experience with Iran since the Second World War is an example of one risk, i.e., that the country is turned into an implacable foe and that thereafter, the intervening country has little ability to influence its actions. Note that in the case of Iran, there are other reasons for hostility between the two countries, including the Islamist fundamentalism of the regime and its opposition to Israel, a close U.S. ally. It is also important to note that the Cold Warrior architects of U.S. policy on Iran in the 1950s believed that the Soviet Union posed a mortal threat to the U.S. and that a change of government in Tehran was necessary to protect U.S. interests at the time. No one would argue that modern day Iran poses a mortal threat to the U.S. There are also other examples of U.S. sponsored regime change that did not lead to lasting hostility, e.g., Chile in 1973.
5. Who acted more heroically, the Taylors or Antonio Mendez?
There is no one correct answer. TWM views the Taylors as the most heroic. Ambassador Taylor, with the support of his wife, went far beyond his obligations and job description to help people of another country, putting his life and that of his wife in danger in order to protect the Americans. Mendez deserves praise as well, and earned all the awards he received from the CIA. He put his life in danger, too. However, Mendez was just doing his job. By the way, Jimmy Carter, who was President during this period and gave the final go-ahead for the operation, agrees. He gives the Canadians 90% of the credit for saving the hostages.
6. The voice-over at the beginning of the film, which outlines the nature of the U.S./Iran conflict, serves to provide background information for the story. In what way did this information influence your attitude toward both the revolutionaries and the diplomats?
All opinions are acceptable. Some students will decide that the historical overview lends support to the Iranian revolution; others will feel that it explains but does not excuse or lend support to the violent overthrow of the Shaw.
See questions on the Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction (discussion questions #s 1 & 2 are derived from this worksheet). See also Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
See Discussion Question #5, above.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See Discussion Question #5, above.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
See Discussion Question #5, above.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. Read Joshua Berman’s WIRED article dated 2007 and entitled “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran.” Write an essay in which you note how the information presented in Berman’s piece is presented in Argo. Be specific; quote from the details Berman presents and cite scenes in the film that create an image of these details. Conclude with a judgment on the accuracy of the adaptation from magazine to film. [Students who want to go further can read the book written by Tony Mendez, the CIA spymaster who planned and carried out the operation, Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.]
2. Research Internet information focused on the role played by the Canadian government in sheltering the American diplomats and the fact that in the film, the CIA took most of the credit for the operation. Write an opinion essay about which group you determine to have been most responsible for the success of the exfiltration plan. Quote sources, such as Jimmy Carter, and various news outlets that gained access to the story, details of which were made public in 1997.
3. Gain access to and watch the Special Features information that has been released with the film. Evaluate how accurately the actors in the film portrayed the characters who were actually involved in the events themselves. Quote from the interviews and cite action or dialogue in the film to support your opinions. Conclude with a judgment on the credibility of the film in terms of the principals involved.
BRIDGES TO READING
Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, Viking, 2012.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Wikipedia Article on Argo; and
- “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran by Joshua Berman, WIRED, April 24, 2007.
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, Viking, 2012.