'Argo' Works, From a Tehran, D.C. and Hollywood Perspective
"Argo," the gripping new Ben Affleck film, packs a 1-3 punch. The film dramatically connects the dots between people, power and intrigue running Washington, Hollywood and Tehran during the hostage crisis – and in my own life as well.
Based on a true story, Affleck portrays CIA agent Tony Mendez and his daring rescue of six Foreign Service workers who escaped the American Embassy takeover in Iran on November 4, 1979. The film, (Affleck also directs) more than effectively blends the news and foreign policy story unraveling in these power hubs, with a successful commercial film.
Given that my life intersects these three power plays, working in Washington in TV news, spending time on that Embassy compound in 1978 and, some 20 years later, as a Hollywood studio executive (I'd be very surprised to learn of another Hollywood studio exec who spent time on that compound before the hostage takeover), I can tell you "Argo" nails all three.
Based at the American Embassy in Tehran from January to August of 1978, I accompanied my now ex-husband on his assignment with one of the agencies that took us to Iran and other American embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Kuwait and Egypt. During this time period, I took a leave of absence from NBC News in Washington (leaving my news ID behind) working for the award-winning news magazine show "Weekend" anchored by Lloyd Dobyns and later Linda Ellerbee. I shared the assignment with Reuven Frank, former President of NBC News and Executive Producer of "Weekend," we had agreed I would drop him notes from the field from time to time, which I did. (Remember this was well before Blackberry, iPhones and CNN.)
We lived in a variety of locations around Tehran, including the Hotel Semiramis on Takht-e-Jamshid across the street from the embassy. Run by two very sophisticated, fashionable Iranian women in tight, designer jeans and silk shirts (one of whom would run around with a wrench fixing the plumbing) it was a popular gathering spot for Westerners doing business in Tehran. Later we stayed in "borrowed apartments" from other embassy workers rotating out on travel. One of these was located behind the back gate of the Embassy, described by Mendez in his book, "Argo" as the "Bijon apartments," where embassy personnel were found hiding after the takeover and taken hostage.
The embassy compound itself was over 25 acres including the Ambassador's residence, tennis courts, many office buildings, swimming pool and a motor court. My ex worked across the street in the consulate, also where all the visas were issued, well known to Iranians trying to get into the U.S., and a critically important operation for the embassy. (I was told there were tunnels running under the streets connecting the Consulate to the compound, I never saw them) Many days, I met him there for lunch or after work, walking past long lines of people extending around the block. The consulate was one of the first buildings attacked, where a number of the hostages were taken, blindfolded, trotted out on the steps for the worldwide media to view.
It is also where six foreign services workers managed to walk out the back door unnoticed, take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador's residence until Mendez (as portrayed by Affleck) hatches a plot involving shooting a "real" Hollywood movie in Tehran to get them out. Disguising the six as Canadian movie scouts on location shoots for "Argo," Mendez creates a brilliant, audacious escape plan, earning him the Intelligence Star for Valor from the CIA, as well as being named one of the top 50 officers in the CIA during its first 50 years. As a movie script on its own, the likelihood of it getting "green lit" and reaching a studio production exec is slim to none, but as a "co-production" with the CIA, it was a huge success.
As a spouse, I had unlimited privileges on the compound, my Embassy ID card read, "United States Mission, Tehran, Iran" on top of the official embassy seal, with my picture, name, birth date, signature and assignment section. In addition, I enjoyed unprecedented freedom roaming the city on my own during the day, from the bazaars and side street shops to "Chattanooga," the hottest new club in upper Pahlavi. I wasn't terribly interested in many social activities for spouses, attending one tea at the Ambassador's residence, interacting with Ambassador William Sullivan. He spent a great deal of time defending his prior service in Laos, the Philippines and North Vietnam, something I thought was totally out of context and very odd. (Sullivan was later replaced by President Carter in mid-1979 for openly opposing U.S. support of the Shah, replaced by Charge d'Affaires Bruce Laingen, one of the 52 hostages held for 444 days).