WASHINGTON — It’s riveting enough watching Ben Affleck’s nail-biting political thriller “Argo” and wondering how in the hell six American diplomats secretly holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence will ever make it out of Iran.
So imagine being glued to that same movie in the company of retired CIA “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez — the character Affleck plays — along with two of the real-life diplomats Mendez managed to smuggle past suspicious Iranian airport guards and, eventually, to freedom.
For many of the 300 foreign service officers, dignitaries and others who packed a Georgetown movie theater Thursday night, the story hit a little too close to home.
“We’re doing this because this movie dramatizes a seminal event in U.S. Foreign Service history: the takeover of our embassy in Tehran in 1979,” said Susan Johnson, president of the nonprofit American Foreign Service Association, which sponsored the screening. “Argo focuses on the story of six Foreign Service officers who escaped the embassy compound and were taken in by our Canadian colleagues until they managed to leave Iran with the assistance of someone who’s here this evening: Tony Mendez.”
The two-hour film, which received five Golden Globe nominations and seems destined for at least one Academy Award, has elicited rave reviews and a 95 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
But few know the back story as well as Mendez himself, who after the screening took questions from the audience. On the panel with Mendez was retired U.S. diplomat John Limbert, who spent 444 days as a hostage, and two of the Canadian ambassador’s “house guests” portrayed in the movie — Bob Anders and Kathy Stafford.
“Joe and I have been in the Foreign Service for 34 years. Wherever we go, we look for the Canadians,” said Stafford, whose husband Joseph D. Stafford III is currently charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. “For a long time, we couldn’t talk about Tony’s contribution to our escape, but we make sure we invite all the Canadians to our house on Jan. 27, the anniversary of our exfiltration. We can’t thank them enough.”
At 54, Anders was by far the oldest of the six (the others were in their late 20s and early 30s). Today white-haired and 86, he remembers Nov. 4, 1979 — the day the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overrun by Islamic revolutionaries — as if it were yesterday.
“The embassy compound consisted of 10 or 15 buildings on 27 acres. Our building was up against the back wall of the compound, so when the demonstrators first came in, they broke into the chancery building and tried to get into our building too,” Anders told the audience.
“We were able to keep them out for awhile, but after an hour or so, we heard people up on the roof and somebody said they were trying to start a fire. It was a Marine guard who took a look and saw no one in the street, and told us to make a break for it,” he said. “There were 30 visitors in the building on business, so we sent them out first, then aboust 20 Iranian employees next, then finally the 10 Americans in two groups. One group went in one direction and they were captured within a few minutes. Our group managed to get away.”
Limbert, who spoke fluent Farsi thanks to his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran years before, was one of 52 hostages released on Jan. 20, 1981 — after 444 days in captivity. He said learning that six of his colleagues had escaped the embassy “was tremendous news” for the hostages who remained on the inside.
Formerly U.S. ambassador to Mauritania and later deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, Limbert is now a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“A number of Iranians have said this is a terrible film. They say it shows them as violent, irrational and fanatic at the time. All I can do is say that at the time, they were violent, irrational and fanatic,” he recalled. “The good thing is that it’s forced people to confront a very ugly part of their own past.”
A middle-aged man then stood up, identified himself as a former Iranian Navy midshipman and quietly told the panel, “On behalf of the Iranian people, I apologize to you for this ugly chapter in our history and I ask for your forgiveness.”
Limbert thanked him, saying “the true victims of what happened were not us — even though it was frightening and terrifying for our families — but the people of Iran who are still suffering after 30 years.”
Affleck’s movie is based on Mendez’s book, “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.”
For years, the CIA master forger couldn’t publicly talk about his role in what came to be known as the “Canadian Caper” because it was top-secret. But President Clinton declassified the operation in 1997, and finally Mendez was able to take credit for one of the most daring, courageous rescues in agency history.
“It’s all about role-playing, analyzing the environment and coming up with the essential elements. We had a back room full of analysts, artists and printers,” said the 71-year-old retired spy, who lives in rural Washington County, Md.
As the CIA’s top “exfil” man, Mendez led a team of more than 100 at Langley, working full-time on document forgeries, disguises and the setting up of a fake Hollywood production company, Studio Six, to make the fake science-fiction movie “Argo” that would ultimately be a ticket out of Iran for the six Americans trapped in the home of Canada’s ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor.
“One of the things that confused us about the Iranian revolution was that they didn’t have any rules of engagement. It turns out they didn’t want to negotiate, they just wanted to blow up the [negotiating] table,” Mendez said.
“When I got to Iran, I quickly learned there was nobody in charge. The guys holding the airport weren’t necessarily talking to the guys downtown,” he said. “One of the funny stories I remember is that while we were making the [exit] documents, we realized that one of our special ink pads had dried out. So I saw a bottle of scotch in the ambassador’s liquor cabinet, and that moistened the ink perfectly.”
Mendez said one of the biggest problems the stranded Americans encountered was boredom.
“While waiting 86 days, one of the things they learned to do was cook — so when I arrived, there was seven-course meals,” he said. “And they played Scrabble so much, it got to the point they could cheat just by recognizing the wood-grain patterns on the tiles.”
The audience of diplomats and their families — who had watched “Argo” in nervous silence — applauded loudly at the film’s final scene, where the Swissair flight attendant announces that they’ve just left Iranian airspace and that alcoholic beverages would now be served.
“That part was absolutely true,” Limbert said.
Yet not everything in Affleck’s movie was historically accurate. The car chase at the airport never happened, the ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper was a “composite” of several different women, and Affleck’s Mendez is portrayed as a divorced man with a son. In reality, he was happily married with three children.
“Argo” was filmed in Istanbul and Los Angeles, and required close cooperation between Mendez and Affleck.
“Ben was a sweetheart to work with. His claim to fame is being a director. When he gets into the moment and designs a shot, he really does his homework,” Mendez said.
“There was a lot of interaction as they were trying to figure out what I wore in 1979. My wife and I were on the phone with Hollywood and they said, ‘What did you wear at the office?’ I said I had a tweed jacket, some wingtips and so on. Ben and his assistant asked if I still had any of those clothes from 30 years ago. We ended up sending my clothes from that time to Hollywood. I think he did a great job, replicating a lot of what we did and how we looked.”
What about the movie’s frightening mock execution scene?.
“That really did happen, roughly in the way it was shown,” Limbert said. “In terms of dealing with those events, the Iranians follow what I call the Cleopatra policy, and you recall that Cleopatra was the queen of denial. Now they claim they never held guns to anybody’s head, that there were no mock executions, that nobody was ever beaten up. The longer time goes on, the more this narrative has taken root. Even President Ahmedinejad has bought into this version of events.”
That’s not surprising for a viciously anti-American populist who also denies that the Holocaust took place.
“These young people did not introduce themselves to us,” Limbert said. “No one said ‘Hello, my name is Mahmoud and I hope you have a nice stay with us.’ Ahmedinejad was, like many of the people who took us, an engineering student. He knew the people who took us. He was one of five who originally planned this operation.”
Mendez warmly praised the half-dozen diplomats he escorted out of Iran 32 years ago, telling his admiring audience “it’s they who deserve the Golden Globe nomination announced this morning. You could put six pounds of makeup on some people and they would still look like somebody you wouldn’t trust.”
Toward the end of the Q&A, an 18-year-old high-school senior asked Mendez and his three retired Foreign Service buddies if any of them had some sage advice for people like himself who dream of becoming a diplomat.
“If you’re still interested in the Foreign Service after seeing this movie,” the aging spy told the young man, “I salute you.”
Larry Luxner is a freelance writer with The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and now based in Israel, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.