Tony Mendez told hundreds who filled an auditorium in Rudder Theater that he would give the movie Argo a grade of "90 percent" for realism in its portrayal of the 1979 operation that resulted in the successful rescue of six U.S. diplomats hiding in Iran.
The retired CIA operative was invited to Texas A&M by the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation to participate in a question-and-answer session that accompanied a special screening of Argo.
Mendez designed the plan that led to the successful rescue of the six Americans who escaped from the besieged U.S. embassy in Tehran and were hidden by the Canadian ambassador. He penned the account in his books The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA and Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
The Argo mission had been classified until 1997.
"It's a very powerful feeling to be in the know when everybody thinks something else. You can sit there and smile," Mendez said.
The story has received attention recently following the release of the award-winning Argo, which was directed by and stars Ben Affleck.
"I am proud that [my] story has been made to share," Mendez said. "It's always interesting to see your life portrayed in a movie; you have mixed feelings. You expect to take your secrets to the grave and not share them."
Mendez said that Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio, the screenwriter, consulted him and others involved in the operation, calling them at all hours of the day or night.
"We had a contract to be technical advisers, which we exercised very well," Mendez said.
At the time of the exfiltration of the diplomats, Mendez said, he would wake up in the morning with his mind racing, trying to determine if everything was going according to the plan.
"When you're scared and when you're not sure whether you should continue on ... it's a good time to do a gut check," Mendez said. "It's one of our rules: Always listen to your gut; if you don't listen to your gut, something will go wrong."
Mendez, who was an artist before becoming the CIA's master of disguise, said that, while the movie was not a direct parallel to his real life and what actually happened, the spirit of the movie aligned with his experience.
One of the most memorable moments where the movie took artistic license, Mendez said, was during the scene when the plane carrying Affleck and the diplomats was lifting off the Iranian tarmac while being chased by Iranian authorities.
"Everything that happens in real life cannot necessarily be represented in a movie the way that it happened, because you would fall asleep -- it would be so boring," Mendez said. "It is the same feeling of being pursued."
Mendez said that Affleck's portrayal of him was similar, though certain aspects of his life were dramatized for the narrative, such as the movie version's drinking problem.
"I always say that Ben's a great guy, but he's not good-looking enough to play me," Mendez said.
The actors who portrayed the six diplomats were so accurate, according to Mendez, that as he approached one of the movie sets from a distance, he thought they were the actual people because of how well their body language resembled that of the actual diplomats.
The movie also depicts Mendez as having only one son, though he actually had three at the time.
When he showed his children the script and told them they had been written out of his life, he said they were understanding, but they requested that the child in the movie be named Ian after Mendez's son, who recently died.
Affleck honored this request and then some.
"If you've seen the movie and watched all the credits, you'll see that the movie was dedicated to Ian, which I thought was rather nice," Mendez said.