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The 'Argo' effect: Film could stoke suspicions about Americans abroad (+video)

The Oscar-winning film 'Argo' tells of how CIA operatives posed as a film crew to free hostages in Iran in 1979. The film could reinforce impressions in some countries that Americans are government agents.

By Staff writer / February 26, 2013

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston (l.) as Jack O’Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in 'Argo,' a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros./AP/File

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Los Angeles

Filming in remote locations has never been a cakewalk, but thanks to Oscar’s top choice, “Argo,” it just got a teensy bit harder, say some intelligence and entertainment industry watchers. The film depicts Hollywood producers helping the CIA spring six American diplomats from 1979 revolutionary Iran by posing them as a film crew.

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CIA agent Tony Mendez talks about the actual mission in Iran.

While the events are decades old, say experts, the message is current and more persuasive in many countries than ever: Americans abroad are the tools of their government and not to be trusted.

“It’s not something you can measure easily,” says David Barrett, a political scientist at Villanova University and author of "The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy." But, he says, “if I were a film company sending my team into Iran or North Korea or Vietnam or any number of countries, it would be prudent to assume that my team would be the object of suspicion.”

“I would also assume this movie ["Argo"] may have confirmed this suspicion for many who do not read books but do see movies,” he adds.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s decision to bring in none other than first lady Michelle Obama to announce the best film Oscar – which just happened to be "Argo" – only amplifies the impression that the relationship between the US government and Hollywood is totally chummy.

“That decision crossed a line,” says Chuck Evered, a director and writer whose film, “A Thousand Cuts,” was recently nominated for a Saturn Award, one that honors science fiction films.

If the industry wanted to send a message of independence from government influence, he says, “that would not be the choice you would make.... If we are all in each other’s back pockets, how effective as storytellers can we be?”

The CIA has used any number of covers over the years, says Peter Earnest, a 35-year CIA veteran and executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington. He says he was involved in numerous intelligence operations and points out that “there are any number of countries where if you even speak a foreign language or ask questions you will become an object of suspicion, so Americans are not alone in this.”

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