Audiences shouldn't worry about the factual errors and omissions in "Argo," says former CIA officer and Iranian hostage William Daugherty
The accuracy of Ben Affleck's "Argo" has been a topic of much conversation lately, with some viewers (and participants in the events depicted in the film) wondering if Affleck was justified in creating a suspenseful, cliffhanger-filled narrative that departed wildly from the routine rescue that actually took place.
So I asked one of the former Iran hostages, a CIA agent who spent 444 days in captivity and is depicted in the film, and his answer was succinct:
It wasn't entirely accurate, but that doesn't matter.
In a recent story in Slate, Mark Lijek, one of the six Americans whose rescue from the Canadian embassy is depicted in the film, pointed out that there were no arguments over their cover story as a movie crew, no interrogations by the Republican Guard, no armed guards pursuing an airplane down the runway.
Affleck himself has said that his film is "not a documentary, not a docu-drama," but that it is essentially true to what happened.
As it turned out, I knew one of the hostages who didn't get out of the American embassy. When I was in college a great many years ago, I worked part-time at a department store in Southern California – where one of the managers, William Daugherty (we knew him as "Dutch") was a former Marine who left his job at the store to go to work for the CIA.
In short order, Daugherty ended up stationed in the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, when Iranian radicals stormed the grounds and took the 50-plus Americans inside hostage. He spent much of his time as a hostage in solitary confinement; while the U.S. government insisted that he was a State Department employee rather than a CIA officer, his captors found evidence proving otherwise.
Daugherty served in the agency for 17 years before becoming a Professor of Government at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, GA. He has written two books, "In the Shadow of the Ayatollah: A CIA Hostage in Iran" and "Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency."
I mentioned Daugherty (right) to Affleck when I interviewed him, and the director-star immediately shouted, "Bill Daugherty! He's in the movie! He's the guy who's shredding the materials down in the basement while the takeover's happening!"
I tracked down Daugherty, whom I hadn't spoken to in more than 30 years, and asked if he'd seen "Argo" and wanted to offer his opinion. And though Daugherty said he's turned down offers to "tell the real story and to point out the errors," he agreed to answer questions about the film in which he had a modest involvement, speaking a few times to production staffers and to the actor who played him (Jamie McShane).
His document-shredding scene, he said, could have been more than the quick glimpse that Affleck ended up using. "In the draft, my character had one line, but it didn't really make any sense," Daugherty wrote in an email. "I brought that to their attention, and they resolved it by simply eliminating any dialog."
The result: "I think that my name scrolling up the screen in the credits took longer than Jamie's aggregate 10-12 seconds in the takeover scene."
But that scene, he said, was a faithful recreation of what really happened inside the embassy.
"The six-or-so minutes of the embassy takeover was pretty accurate," he said. "It moved so fast the perhaps laypersons may not understand everything, but then, a four-hour event turned into six minutes is perforce a minimalist approach. However, I think it depicted the intensity, mayhem, and confusion of the event very well."
As for the film's depiction of the CIA (mostly through the characters played by Affleck and Cranston), Daugherty admitted that the reality may have been a bit more mundane.
"There were certainly errors/omissions done in the name of 'dramatic license,'" he said. "A lot of the real story of the CIA participation was actually lacking in action or drama, and therefore probably not terribly interesting for the audience. Surprisingly, even most of the Top Secret-related activities are mundane, routine business for the CIA."
Still, Daugherty echoed Affleck when he added, "Most of my former colleagues enjoyed the film. It was not, after all, intended to be a documentary, but rather an action film intended to attract audiences while still giving the general spirit of the event. Of the notable errors, only someone well versed in the requirements of covert action programs would have picked up on them."
He was aware, he said, that not everyone involved felt the same. "I do know at least one of the six is unhappy with the multiple errors/omissions/misleading scenes related to the time in Canadian haven. I understand his discontent, but again, it was not a documentary and movies are an investment which require a goodly return on the dollar."
Affleck, he said, "worked with me in good faith" on the film – and as a result, he didn't think the audience should be "sitting there looking for the errors — they should be enjoying the film instead."
In the conclusion to his email, Daugherty proved that even former spies can't help playing Oscar prognosticator.
"I thought the movie itself was very well done," he said. "Affleck's direction was superb; I am hopeful he'll get an Oscar nod for Best Director. Affleck may or may not be in the running for Best Actor, but Cranston, Arkin and Goodman all should definitely be considered for Best Supporting Actor. Best Film Editing should also be in the cards."