A new film, “Argo,” portrays a mostly real, largely forgotten moment in world history, when the United States smuggled six members of its embassy staff out of Tehran by posing them as members of a film crew on a location scout. A few weeks earlier, the momentum of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which had ousted the pro-U.S. shah, led protesters to storm the embassy and take most of its inhabitants hostage for 444 days. Six escaped the crowds, though, making it into the home of the Canadian ambassador to Tehran, who secretly sheltered them while the CIA worked out its outlandish but successful plot.
The movie has attracted largely positive reviews, now including one from a very well-placed insider: Gary Sick. A member of the White House National Security Council during the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations, Sick served as an Iran specialist during the 1979 revolution and ensuing hostage crisis. He glowingly reviews “Argo” in Al-Monitor, an invaluable Web-only publication following the Middle East. He liked the movie, but here are some of his insights on the hostage crisis and its Hollywood portrayal:
• Fear that U.S. media would blow the story: “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,” Sick writes, adding that some reporters already had it. “It was clear that the story could not be suppressed forever. The pressure of time was not a movie invention.”
• A lesson in the forgotten value of diplomats: Sick writes of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, “His willingness to risk his own life for a group of fugitives says something important about the much maligned diplomatic service. I also mourn the fact that the Canadian embassy would not be available to help if something happened today. It was recently closed by an ideologically rigid Canadian prime minister.” The country closed its Tehran embassy in September, citing Iran’s support for terrorism and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
• Inter-agency fighting in Washington: The film, Sick says, “accurately captures the stifling internal rivalries among government departments. Needless to say, since the hero of this tale is the CIA, the State Department and the White House come off as rather more stodgy and unimaginative than was actually the case, in my experience.”
• Gets the characters right: Sick calls the portrayals of key American and Canadian figures, particularly the White House chief of staff and the Canadian ambassador “almost eerily accurate — right down to the tiniest body language.”
• Inaccuracies toward the film’s end: I won’t ruin any plot points, but like many other reviewers, Sick points out that some of the tense cat-and-mouse scenes in the movie’s latter third or so are pure dramatizations. Otherwise, though, he seems to think it’s an accurate portrayal of the events and mood at the time.