Though I LOVE the Oscars (pretty dresses, montages, earnest acceptance speeches. What’s not to like?) I don’t often see the big award contenders before the ceremony. Shockingly enough, most of the Oscar-bait movies tend to be really depressing and do not contain big song and dance numbers or stuff blowing up. This year however, I managed to catch eventual Best Picture winner, Argo, just in time for the show. I left the theater thoroughly entertained and wanting to know more about the main man played by Ben Affleck and his rocking ’70s beard. I knew that the real-life Antonio J. Mendez had published a book solely about the Argo mission to coincide with the release of the movie, but I decided to check out his earlier memoir originally published in 1999 instead. Written with journalist Malcolm McConnell, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (William Morrow) details Tony Mendez’s 25 year career with the CIA’s Office of Technical Service division. It’s a fascinating look into a secretive world that’s often glamorized, but rarely shown accurately.
Here are my thoughts:
- Let’s just get the less interesting stuff out of the way. The book is competently written, but has a lot of the problems that you’d expect from one that’s written by someone who’s not a professional writer. The transitions are often awkward or sloppy and the recreated dialogue doesn’t always resemble how people actually speak. Mendez also starts each chapter in media res, but the device gets repetitive and unnecessarily dramatic, especially when the subject is so inherently dramatic anyway. There’s also a lot of jargon involved, you know acronyms and code names and such. Mendez does a good job explaining them (when he can, some of the stuff is still classified) and there’s a glossary in the back, but it was still confusing to follow at times. Given the subject though, I’m not sure if that could have been avoided. For me though, I’m fine with the writing being merely adequate in nonfiction as long as the subject is interesting enough to compensate.
- Though Mendez goes into great details about his successful operations over the years, he tends to gloss over the CIA failures and dirty deeds. So if you’re looking for a real expose, this isn’t it. Mendez is very much a company man.
- Ok, now onto the more fun stuff. I got the impression after watching the movie and by the title of the book, that Mendez was a full-on field agent like James Bond or Sydney Bristow. As it turns out, Mendex was much more of a Q type, albeit one who spent a lot of time out in the field. He started out in the graphics department forging travel documents and designing propaganda materials before eventually earning his way out into the field. He wasn’t planting bugs or tailing terrorists, but his job was to provide all of the “stuff”, whether that be passports, clothing, or props to make an agent’s cover believable. There have been lots of spy stories about the James Bond types, but I’ve never read or seen anything that delves into the Q side of the world and it’s fascinating. In stories it’s like, here are some random gadgets that will magically be relevant to the plot. I mean you don’t give someone a passenger ejector seat, if the bad guy is not going to be sitting in it in Act III. In real life, every prop or technique they developed was in response to a real life problem and Tony goes into the whys and hows of the various things they came up with.
- Though he started out in the CIA as a graphic artist and forger, Mendez’s biggest contribution was how he revolutionized disguises. He worked with legendary Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (who he calls Jerome Calloway in the book since his identity was still a secret when it was originally published) in adapting make-up techniques that could completely change someone’s appearance to be used in the field. He also developed ways that agents could quickly don and get rid of disguises in order to escape the omnipresence of the KGB in Moscow in order to meet with their assets undetected. These methods are still used today, so Mendez is understandably vague about the details, but it’s very impressive. Plus, it’s a little mind-blowing to learn that the ridiculous Mission Impossible-style mask is not so far off from reality.
- The CIA has the best job titles. At one point, Tony is named Chief of Disguises and there’s also a Chief of the Questioned Documents Laboratory. How awesome would it be to have either of those titles on your business cards? You know, if CIA agents could actually have business cards.
- I’ve become obsessed with the new show The Americans on FX, which is about two Russian spies who have been posing as a suburban Washington DC married couple for YEARS and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. It’s awesome and Keri Russell gets to have fabulous hair and kick a lot of ass. ANYWAY, one of the things that struck me about the show AND this book (see, there had to be a connection eventually) is how low tech the spy business was back then. No cell phones, no facial recognition, no scanning of any kind. There were listening devices, and cameras, and microdots, and radios, for crying out loud. Electronics were really only starting to be more prominent at the end of Mendez’s tenure in the late 80s and there was apparently some resistance and skepticism at first. The advances in technology have to have changed the intelligence business drastically, but I wonder if it’s made it easier or more difficult.
I’ve been thinking recently about why I’m so fascinated by spy stories. Sure, there tends to be heroes, villains, action, adventure, danger, and the appeal of doing something bad or shifty for the greater good. But I think the biggest draw is peeking into a world that, by necessity, is so secretive and unknown. Tony Mendez pulls back the curtain a bit and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a very real man involved in some extraordinary circumstances.