Gary Sick writes: The American embassy in Tehran was attacked and its residents imprisoned almost exactly 33 years ago, November 4, 1979. The 444-day ordeal of the hostage crisis burned itself into the American collective consciousness. It was America’s first contact with radical Islam. It was our first televised foreign policy crisis. It was the subtext for Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful reelection campaign. And it has shaped US attitudes and policies toward Iran ever since.
Most Americans — even the under-33 generation — have some recollection of those events: photos of blindfolded diplomats; angry crowds of bearded young men waving their fists at the TV cameras; wreckage of helicopters in the Iranian desert after the failed rescue mission; triumphal homecoming parades.
Several episodes, however, have largely been forgotten. Who recalls that 13 blacks and women were released by the Iranians in the first few weeks of the crisis in a crude bid to polarize American public opinion? And how many people remember the six Americans who hid out in the Canadian embassy after evading capture, and who were later smuggled out of Iran in full sight of the militiamen at Mehrabad Airport?
This latter part of the story, dubbed the “Canadian Caper,” was a brief burst of good news in the midst of an otherwise grim daily dose of frustration and anger. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor rightly became an American hero. However, the details of the rescue were classified. Any direct connection of the CIA to the operation, or even excessive gloating, could have been dangerous to the remaining 53 hostages. So it was not until many years later that the full story was revealed. For most Americans, it receded to the status of a footnote.
No longer. Ben Affleck has taken the essence of the story, given it the full Hollywood treatment, and released it this weekend to excellent reviews. Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA disguise specialist who came up with the unlikely cover story and personally shepherded the six through the airport on January 28, 1980, in the guise of a Canadian film crew exploring sites for a sci-fi thriller named Argo.
Viewed simply as a spy thriller, Argo is brilliantly edgy and entertaining. Affleck doesn’t overplay his role. He resists what must have been a temptation to inject a large dose of James Bond into his character. Instead, he plays a talented guy separated from his young son, as he and his wife take some “time off.” As Mendez, he comes up with an outlandish plan and sells it with some difficulty to a skeptical bureaucracy as, admittedly, the “best bad idea we’ve got.” It was a time, after all, when almost all options available to the US administration were unattractive. [Continue reading…]