Monday, April 22, 2013

The Master of Disguise and Argo by Antonio Mendez

The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez with Malcolm McConnell.
Nov, 1999

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio. Sep, 2012

Tony Mendez has won my ongoing debate as to who is the best James Bond ever.  Yes, of course, I know Bond, James Bond, is a fictional character and Antonio Mendez is not.  That’s why I’m giving the edge to Mendez, a retired CIA agent, artist and author.

The Cubby Broccoli Bond movies have it all; an unbelievable opening sequence, the Bond girl, a musical superstar singing the title song.  I grew up with Sean Connery as Bond.  None of the others—Moore, Lazenby, Dalton, Brosnan even comes close till Daniel Craig.  Just when I pretty much have decided Skyfall is the best Bond movie ever, along comes Argo, which isn’t part of the Bond franchise; it’s even better because it is a spy movie based on actual historical events and real people.

I wanted to know how much of the movie Argo is true and how much is Hollywood. That’s when I discover that the actual Tony Mendez, the character played by Ben Affleck in the movie, wrote a pre-Argo book called The Master of Disguise.  That’s the one I want to read, but I have to request it through Interlibrary Loan, which means I have to wait a few days for the book to arrive.  In the meantime I read Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, the post-movie book which is in our collection.

While I like both of Mendez’ books, I give the edge to his first because it preceded the Hollywood hype.  So much for the movie Argo winning an Academy Award; do you know that the Center Intelligence Agency personnel, similar to the military services, are eligible for medals?  Tony Mendez received an Intelligence Star for the Canadian caper, and his wife and children could not even attend the ceremony because the mission he got the medal for was still classified.  Mendez also was honored as one of fifty CIA Trailblazers, an award given in 1997 to celebrate 50 years of CIA operations.

Both of Mendez’ books went through the CIA approval process for former operatives required prior to publication.  I speculated that all the “good stuff” had been edited out, but I didn’t find that to be true.  Although some details were sketchy, I found enough content to read both books and to put in an ILL request for a third book Mendez co-wrote with his second wife, also a retired CIA master of disguise:  Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations That Helped Win the Cold War by Antonio and Jonna Mendez with Bruce Henderson published in September 2002.

I found both The Master of Disguise and Argo fast-paced and suspenseful enough that I kept reading. The first person narration allows Mendez’s character and voice to shine through and balances some of the drier details of the spy trade.  Mendez’s portrayal of his years as an agent matches John le CarrĂ©’s George Smiley more than Ian Fleming’s Bond.  Will I quit watching Bond movies now that I’ve read an insider’s view of the espionage business?  No, but I will be a more critical viewer thanks to Tony Mendez.

 - Michelle, Adult Services

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