I guess it’s fair to say that Ben Affleck is not doing a documentary … or is he? In a recent interview by Terry Gross with Affleck that I caught on National Public Radio, he notes how he studied the Middle East in college and wanted to include the information on Mohammed Mossadeg and the US intervention in Iranian affairs to bring Shah Palavi to power. Affleck left me with the impression that accuracy was very important to the project.
To underscore the film’s commitment to reality, Affleck included information in the film’s front cards that was important to him as a student of the Middle East. This consisted of the historical context concerning the violent overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddegh and the successful CIA plot to consolidate the power of the shah, Mohammed Pahlava. This coup ultimately, according to many observers, led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Is Argo a story that is fundamentally true but appropriately tweaked to create the successful commercial venture, or is it a dramatization that while inspired by real events is largely a work of fiction with a political message? And, if the latter, as Hillary Clinton might say, “Who cares?”
Obviously, I care because too many people, especially young people, go to the movies and are incapable of discerning fact from fiction, especially when a popular and entertaining movie seems to be sufficiently grounded in reality to provide historical context.
Affleck’s Argo with its endnotes attempts to resuscitate the corpse of Jimmy Carter’s incompetent presidency. Carter has said that it was too bad he couldn’t tell the story of these events because if he had, he probably would have defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential contest. This is simply another disingenuous statement from a man given to making them.
Anyone who has studied the relationship between the Carter administration and the CIA knows that Carter was averse to the entire notion of covert operations. Carter’s DCI, Stansfield Turner, is ignominiously remembered among those who served in the intelligence community in those years for what has become known as the Halloween Massacre. This was the wholesale evisceration of much of the covert branch of the agency, with the summary pink-slipping of some 800 to 2800 — depending on whose numbers one accepts — seasoned and well-trained operatives. Carter and his DCI believed that human intelligence (humint) was a remnant of the past.
The first thing that is wrong with this historical revision is the idea that Jimmy Carter’s bashed and crippled CIA could pull off this rescue. Moreover, Carter’s destruction of the effectiveness of the covert branch of the agency meant that with the termination of covert officers, their foreign networks went with them.
The real workings of intelligence are — with obvious exceptions — nothing remotely like what you see in the movies. Espionage is based on a long, slow, and patient process of establishing trust and creating networks among foreigners who will work for you at tremendous risk. Why people spy is a matter far beyond this writing, but suffice it to say that it takes a good intelligence officer, in a foreign post, years to build a reliable espionage network. Fire the officer and the entire network collapses with him. Fire a large number of intelligence officers and foreigners engaged in the game on our behalf will justifiably worry about being exposed and quit.
So, by 1979, it was safe to say that because of Carters’ policies, the CIA had limited covert capabilities and limited human assets in Iran or anywhere else. The British, French, and Israelis were engaged in trying to recruit from our decapitated networks, but how successful they were is largely unknown. There is, however, hardly any chance that whatever intelligence their networks could have gathered would have been shared with the highly disdained Carter-era CIA or that they would have used their intelligence assets to come to our aid.
The real story of Argo is that six members of the State Department escaped initially to the summer residence of Sir John Graham, the British ambassador, before going to the residence of the Canadian ambassador and his first secretary. Contrary to Affleck, the Brits did not turn away our people.
Since people will think Affleck’s movie is more reality-based than it is, we should cut away from the glitz of the Oscars and acknowledge the role of the Brits, and the risks that they took in coming to the aid of our diplomats. America does not have enough friends in the world to squander the ones we do have. That’s something Barack Obama was too immature to understand when he pointedly returned the bust of Churchill that was a gift from Britain not to him but to the American people.
The people who got the real short end of the stick in Argo were the Canadians. It was First Secretary John Sheardown who took the call from the fleeing Americans and without hesitation granted them a place to hide. Some were hidden in his home. Sheardown died recently, and his wife found the movie disappointing for characterizing him as an observer to an historical event in which he played a fundamental role.
If Affleck wanted to take the high ground, he would run a series of adverts stating that Argo is fiction and the real heroes of the movie were the Canadians, who put their lives on the line for their American cousins and got scarce acknowledgement in return. It wasn’t Tony Mendez or the bashed CIA that got the Americans out, but the Canadians who arranged the vital Canadian passports and the airline tickets through Swiss Air and two other airlines. The Argo cover was unnecessary, and the cliff-hanger scene at the airport was pure invention. The Americans armed with their Canadian papers and with reservations made by Canadian diplomats walked out of Iran without challenge and on to the safety of airplanes.
Of course, that doesn’t make for an exciting movie. I’m not against license. I’m against leaving the impression you didn’t take it while creating a story, in the process, that millions will assume is factual and denies the heroism of real people.
As for Jimmy Carter, he had nearly nothing to do with this. Carter bungled Iran as he bungled nearly everything else. He failed to understand the threat of the ayatollahs, and, according to Robert Dreyfus’s version of events, he sent Air Force General Robert Huyser to further destabilize the shah’s regime. Carter believed that there was a democratic center that was coming to power. He made the same mistake with Iran that Obama made with the Arab Spring.
Neither Argo nor Jimmy Carter’s crude attempts to rewrite history nor Michelle Obama presenting an Oscar for a movie that makes us feel good about what other nations really did in Iran will change what happened. And to the British and especially the Canadians, many of us long for a day when America will apologize to you and appropriately reaffirm the risks and heroism of your people on behalf of ours.