Monday, October 15, 2012

Argo sparks memories and questions surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis

Posted By on Mon, Oct 15, 2012 at 7:25 AM

While the issue of the Obama administration's scattered reactions to the lack of security in Libya that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on September 11 was batted around on all the Sunday talk shows, Ben Affleck's Argo continued to earn heaping doses of praise by film critics and audiences alike.

Stevens death is the first time a U.S. Ambassador has lost his life overseas since 1979, the same year when the Iranian hostage crisis began. Over 50 Americans were held in captivity for 444 days by Iranian hostages, contributing to Jimmy Carter's ultimate fate as a one-term president.

Less well known was the daring rescue plan cooked up by former CIA agent Tony Mendez to extract six Americans from the Canadian Ambassador's residence that took place in January of 1980 - the basis of Argo.

This extremely entertaining movie has an afterword, featuring photos comparing the real life Americans with the actors who played them in the film, as well as a voice-over from former President Jimmy Carter, who admits that he would have liked to have taken credit for the successful mission, but couldn't make the CIA's role public without endangering the remaining hostages in Tehran.

But what if he had? Would it have changed anything in the 1980 election against Ronald Reagan?

It's something to contemplate in the aftermath of the film, which is decidedly a Hollywood production and not a documentary.

But it does bring back the memories, doesn't it? There is lots of footage from American television broadcasts in the film (we all know Nightline was created at the time, and we see some clips of Mike Wallace's celebrated interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini that aired frequently earlier this year upon the news of the 60 Minutes reporter's death).

There was a lot of anger in this country that is reflected in news clips of Iranians (or people who just looked Iranian) were getting physically attacked.

Gary Sick served on the staff of the National Security Council under President Carter at that time, and was the principal White House aide for Persian Gulf affairs from 1976 to 1981. In 1991 he wrote the book October Surprise, which laid out the controversial premise that Republicans went behind his back in 1980 to stop him from freeing the 52 hostages.

Sick has penned an op-ed/review of Argo on the website of Al-Monitor.

Like many of us in the government at that time, I was aware that a number of Americans had managed to escape into Tehran and had taken refuge in the Canadian Embassy. I shared the widespread (and very real) concern that some news organization would get word of this and rush it into print — thereby insuring that they would never escape. Even printing the complete photo set of those at the embassy would have quickly revealed the truth. In fact, several reporters were onto the story. In the end, all of them resisted printing the story. However, it was clear that the story could not be suppressed forever. The pressure of time was not a movie invention.

The escape of the six was a cause for total celebration, even by those of us who were only on the periphery of the plan. We especially had a hard time controlling our mirth as the Iranian Foreign Minister complained with a straight face about the unacceptable violation of Iranian sovereignty by the Canadian chicanery.

****Spoiler alert*****

However Sick is one of several observers to note that the Afflect directed film takes liberties with what really went down in 1979-1980. He writes:

The film has added a terrifying visit to the Tehran Bazaar by the six members of the “film crew” — a risk their handler would surely have been fired for attempting in real life. The end of the film is a real nail-biter, with the Iranians in the process of discovering the truth and with the US government suddenly backing away from the whole venture. As far as I know, none of that was true.

The entire scene inside the Tehran airport with Mendez and the Americans is is filled with white knuckle intensity, but apparently much of that is made up.

David Haglund in Slate writes that the scene where Mendez (Affleck) is initially told there are no reservations for a trip on Swiss Air is bogus - in fact the plane tickets were purchased ahead of time by the Canadians.

There apparently wasn't the hold-up with the guards either. Mendez says it went "smooth as silk."

Then there's also this: Tony Mendez was Latino. Ben Affleck is of course, not.

The Latino entertainment website Se Fija! speculates that it's doubtful that Affleck could have gotten the financing for the film if it were a brown actor, and not himself starring in the role.

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