More than any single event in my lifetime, the Iran hostage crisis convinced me how little reality intrudes on American politics. We are seeing it right now in the way Republicans are trying, with laser hindsight, to blame the Obama administration for the tragic deaths of ambassador Chris Stephens and his guard detail at the hands of Islamist terrorists in Benghazi, Libya. Viewed through American political lenses, the world is something Washington ought to have under complete control at all times.
There are few better examples of how little control we can have over some things than the Iranian hostage crisis. The entire episode was, in many ways, an outrageous charade. The Iranians pretended for their own purposes that the entire U.S. diplomatic mission in Tehran—right down to the teenage Marine guards – were CIA agents plotting against their revolution, and American TV networks played along for more than a year, ostentatiously counting the days of captivity, treating the whole thing like a major national security crisis, which it was not.
In that sense, Ben Affleck’s new film, Argo, captures the moment perfectly. It is a movie about a small charade played out in the middle of the larger one, the rescue of six Americans who walked away from the embassy on the day of the takeover and hid inside the Candian embassy. I hope it will put a small dent in the lasting perception of the episode as an epic American disaster.
The Canadian Caper was one of the only bright spots in that long national ordeal, and Argo handles it with just the right touch of whimsy. Just about everything in Argo gets the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980 right, from clunky old telephones to the American hostages’ excesses of hair and comically oversized glasses to the bell-bottom bluejeans and army-surplus coats worn by fledgling Revolutionary Guards.
The confusion and panic inside the embassy; the breakdown of the burn machine overloaded with documents that were then painstakingly fed into shredders; the realization that fighting back against the mob would guarantee that they would all be killed; the hasty decision of the embassy security chief Al Golacinski to go and talk to the crowd, only to find himself, minutes later, with a gun to his head, banging on a locked door and begging his colleagues to surrender—all of it happened exactly as depicted.
The film also captures the dangers faced by the hostages, encapsulated in a terrifying scene of mock execution—which happened. In the more than 30 years since, the fact that all of the hostages were ultimately released has obscured the terror of their ordeal and the fears the takeover prompted in the United States. The danger was very real. That everyone survived is often overlooked in the rush to declare the incident a national embarrassment.
Affleck, who both directed and stars, plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who plans to rescue six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy in Tehran by pretending to scout locations for a ridiculous sci-film called “Argo” and passing the hideaways off as his crew. The film skillfully invents moments of suspense, humor, and drama as only Hollywood can, and will succeed in making Mendez, who consulted on the film, the hero he deserves to be.
“Argo” has great fun with his cover story. John Goodman and Alan Arkin give winning performances as old Hollywood hands cooking up a fake project—as anyone who has worked in Hollywood knows, you spend far more time working on movies that never get made than ones that actually do. Bryan Cranston winningly plays the CIA officer overseeing this far-fetched project at Langley, where he assures his superiors, “This is the best bad idea we have.”
In real life the “Argo” operation was just a small, satisfying sideshow to the main event, and yet the film is remarkably clear-eyed in its assessment of the larger crisis. It quotes from an infamous CIA assessment, months before the Shah fell, that the country was not even in a “pre-revolutionary” state. The seizure of the embassy, nine months after the Shah fled, was a risk the Carter administration decided to run: maintaining ties and influence can be especially important during such periods of change. And the Carter administration had reason to believe its diplomats would be safe. After all, any diplomatic mission depends on the local government for protection, and an earlier takeover had been quickly undone by the revolutionary authorities.
In Tehran, the presence of the working American embassy was intended as a signal that the United States had accepted the revolution and was ready to work with whatever government emerged. Iranian militants chose to see it as a provocation, and ultimately used it to whip up public fears of an American counter-revolution, a pretense they milked for more than a year to defeat their political rivals—mostly democrats and socialists—and seize control of the state.
There is a haunting scene in Argo when a car carrying Mendez through the crowded streets of Tehran passes the body of a man in a business suit who has been hung from a large construction crane. At the end, the image reappears in a montage alongside an actual photograph of the atrocity. Score settling with the Shah’s old regime quickly morphed into an Islamist purge, as those revolutionaries struggling to recreate an Iranian democracy were branded as tools of the Great Satan, and either strung up, shot, imprisoned or (the lucky ones) exiled.
To keep up the pretense of an American counter-revolution, the hostages had to be “spies,” and the papers seized from American files inside the chancery “proof” of their conspiracy—a name on a political officer’s Rolodex was enough to brand an Iranian official as a traitor. The film depicts one of the hostage-takers regular press conferences, where chubby young Nilufar Ebtakar (later a vice president of the country) unspooled this fantasy in American-accented English.
Argo shows a real clip of Iran’s then foreign minister, the sad-faced Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, uttering in response a statement that will last long in the annals of hypocrisy, accusing Canada of “flagrantly violating international law.” This while most of the U.S. mission remained captive. Ghotbzadeh was himself secretly negotiating with the Carter administration at the time, trying to arrange for the hostages’ release, for which he would pay the ultimate price in the coming years. He would be arrested and tortured and marched to a firing squad by his Islamist countrymen.
The charade was pretty much over by the summer of 1980, after the new Islamist state was on its feet, but then Saddam Hussein attacked. Iran was at war, and the hostage issue back-burnered. They were finally released in January 1981, after Jimmy Carter had lost his bid for a second term and Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated. Ever since, many have convinced themselves that Iran held the hostages for 444 days because Carter was too weak to act—in fact he prepared and launched one of the boldest covert military efforts in American history—and that Iran ultimately released the captives because they feared dealing with the Gipper, who proved to be a lot more willing to deal with the mullahs than Carter ever was.
The idea that America could somehow shape and control these events, any more than it can dictate the outcome of events today in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, is not just arrogant, it’s preposterous. As the Iran hostage crisis made clear, sometimes just the friendly presence of the United States in a country can be turned against us.
The film ends with a little spoken post-script by Jimmy Carter, whose basic decency is the reason the rest of the Americans trapped in Tehran made it home alive. At a time when those who view foreign policy as political gamesmanship were demanding that the United States hit Iran hard, when the American press was doing its best to rev up jingoist sentiment, Carter never lost sight of the thing that mattered most, the fate of those captive Americans. His forbearance (and the failure of his rescue mission) may have cost him his presidency, but remains one of the finest examples of courage in White House history.