Saw a terrific movie yesterday. “Argo”. It’s based on the true story of the Iran hostage crisis that took place between November 4, 1979 and January 20, 1981. At the time 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, after a group of Islamist students and militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran.
How ironic that his film would be playing at a time when, once again, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been so recently under attack.
In the film, which is directed by Ben Affleck (and produced by Affleck and George Clooney), six diplomats escape from the embassy and narrowly miss being captured; and they take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. When none of the State Department options for getting them safely out of the country seem viable, they call in a CIA specialist, Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, as a consultant.
That’s all I’m going to tell you, because I don’t want to give it away. This is definitely a should-see movie. Suffice to say, you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat. In the theatre I was in, you didn’t hear a pin drop.
Of course, as a Canadian, I was also feeling very proud of the role we played. I remember this historic event. I remember the headlines, and all the TV coverage. I remember hearing the news about Ken Taylor and how his courage helped to save the six Americans’ lives. In fact, had it not been for him, there would probably have been no need for Tony Mendez or a plan. All six of them would, most likely, have been captured, tortured and killed.
It’s been more than thirty years, and I’m sketchy on some of the details, so I turned to my usual source of facts: Wikipedia. The reason for the ‘coup’ was to retaliate against the U.S. because of their support for the recently deposed, and reviled, Shah. At the time he was dying of cancer, and he was in the U.S. for treatment.
In providing the six endangered diplomats ‘sanctuary’, Ken Taylor put himself, his wife, his staff and John Sheardown, a Canadian immigration officer, at great risk. But undaunted, Taylor sought, and got, the blessings and assistance of both Flora MacDonald, the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, and our Prime Minister at the time, Joe Clark.
They decided to smuggle the Americans out of Iran on an international flight, using Canadian passports and a set of forged Iranian visas, prepared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. A mistake was made in dating the visas which, thankfully, was caught in time for Mendez to correct them. Mendez was a disguise and exfiltration expert, who was enlisted to provide a cover story, documents, appropriate clothing, and materials to change their appearance. He and Canadian government staff in Ottawa obviously worked very closely together.
On January 27, 1980, the six American diplomats boarded a flight for Zurich, Switzerland at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. They arrived safely. For their part, Ambassador Taylor, John Sheardown, their wives and several embassy staff members were appointed to the Order of Canada, our second highest civilian award. Taylor also received the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress.
Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star, but couldn’t keep it because of the classified nature of the work he did to earn it. It was, however, returned to him when the operation was declassified in 1997. Upon their return to the United States, the hostages were showered with gifts, including lifetime passes to any minor or Major League Baseball game. In 2000, they tried to sue Iran under the Antiterrorism Act. They were unsuccessful.
With the U.S. Presidential election virtually upon us, and with American politics never more divisive, perhaps the most important message we can take from “Argo”, is how much good can come from co-operation and collaboration. Whether it’s between neighbouring countries or Republicans and Democrats.