Guest blog: A former D.C. journalist who was based at the embassy in Tehran and went on to become a Hollywood studio exec says "Argo" gets it right
"Argo," the gripping new Ben Affleck film, packs a 1-3 punch. The film dramatically connects the dots between people, power and intrigue running Washington, Hollywood and Tehran during the hostage crisis – and in my own life as well.
Based on a true story, Affleck portrays CIA agent Tony Mendez and his daring rescue of six Foreign Service workers who escaped the American Embassy takeover in Iran on November 4, 1979. The film, (Affleck also directs) more than effectively blends the news and foreign policy story unraveling in these power hubs, with a successful commercial film.
Given that my life intersects these three power plays, working in Washington in TV news, spending time on that Embassy compound in 1978 and, some 20 years later, as a Hollywood studio executive (I'd be very surprised to learn of another Hollywood studio exec who spent time on that compound before the hostage takeover), I can tell you "Argo" nails all three.
Based at the American Embassy in Tehran from January to August of 1978, I accompanied my now ex-husband on his assignment with one of the agencies that took us to Iran and other American embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Kuwait and Egypt. During this time period, I took a leave of absence from NBC News in Washington (leaving my news ID behind) working for the award-winning news magazine show "Weekend" anchored by Lloyd Dobyns and later Linda Ellerbee. I shared the assignment with Reuven Frank, former President of NBC News and Executive Producer of “Weekend,” we had agreed I would drop him notes from the field from time to time, which I did. (Remember this was well before Blackberry, iPhones and CNN.)
We lived in a variety of locations around Tehran, including the Hotel Semiramis on Takht-e-Jamshid across the street from the embassy. Run by two very sophisticated, fashionable Iranian women in tight, designer jeans and silk shirts (one of whom would run around with a wrench fixing the plumbing) it was a popular gathering spot for Westerners doing business in Tehran. Later we stayed in "borrowed apartments" from other embassy workers rotating out on travel. One of these was located behind the back gate of the Embassy, described by Mendez in his book, “Argo” as the “Bijon apartments,” where embassy personnel were found hiding after the takeover and taken hostage.
The embassy compound itself was over 25 acres including the Ambassador's residence, tennis courts, many office buildings, swimming pool and a motor court. My ex worked across the street in the consulate, also where all the visas were issued, well known to Iranians trying to get into the U.S., and a critically important operation for the embassy. (I was told there were tunnels running under the streets connecting the Consulate to the compound, I never saw them) Many days, I met him there for lunch or after work, walking past long lines of people extending around the block. The consulate was one of the first buildings attacked, where a number of the hostages were taken, blindfolded, trotted out on the steps for the worldwide media to view.
It is also where six foreign services workers managed to walk out the back door unnoticed, take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador's residence until Mendez (as portrayed by Affleck) hatches a plot involving shooting a “real” Hollywood movie in Tehran to get them out. Disguising the six as Canadian movie scouts on location shoots for “Argo,” Mendez creates a brilliant, audacious escape plan, earning him the Intelligence Star for Valor from the CIA, as well as being named one of the top 50 officers in the CIA during its first 50 years. As a movie script on its own, the likelihood of it getting "green lit" and reaching a studio production exec is slim to none, but as a "co-production" with the CIA, it was a huge success.
As a spouse, I had unlimited privileges on the compound, my Embassy ID card read, "United States Mission, Tehran, Iran" on top of the official embassy seal, with my picture, name, birth date, signature and assignment section. In addition, I enjoyed unprecedented freedom roaming the city on my own during the day, from the bazaars and side street shops to "Chattanooga," the hottest new club in upper Pahlavi. I wasn't terribly interested in many social activities for spouses, attending one tea at the Ambassador's residence, interacting with Ambassador William Sullivan. He spent a great deal of time defending his prior service in Laos, the Philippines and North Vietnam, something I thought was totally out of context and very odd. (Sullivan was later replaced by President Carter in mid-1979 for openly opposing U.S. support of the Shah, replaced by Charge d'Affaires Bruce Laingen, one of the 52 hostages held for 444 days).
Through contacts I made while living in Tehran, I knew the real identity of the woman calling herself “Mary,” starring in the central role of interpreter between the hostages and their captors. Seen in several scenes in "Argo," she speaks flawless English, conducting hostile press conferences for the worldwide media barking long lists of demands. I broke the story detailing her life in an op-ed for the N.Y. Times, published on Feb. 21, 1981.Her name is Niloofar Ebtekar. She was born in Tehran, but attended elementary school for a few years in Upper Darby, Pa., learning English and American history, while her father, an engineer, was getting his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Returning to Tehran and graduating from high school, she applied to several Ivy League colleges in the U.S., including Bryn Mawr, where she was accepted, but chose to attend Tehran University. Fast-forward some 20 years, when as a member of the Khatami regime, she became the first woman Vice President in Iran’s history. Talk about leveraging a part! She managed to take one starring TV role and maximized it into a huge, star-powered political role, something a few actors with much more Hollywood experience can identify with.
Fast-forward 20 years in my life, which included working at "Nightline," CNN in Los Angeles and moving on to become sr. vice-president of corporate communications for MGM Studios.
"Argo" realistically documents the hostile, anti-Western, anti-American, (most especially targeting American women) movement gaining noticeable momentum in the streets by mid-1978. It was growing rapidly and palpable, especially in Tehran, where hundreds of Iranian women in the streets began covering up from head to toe in black chadors. More and more, I was followed during the day, luckily somehow always leading them on a trail back to the Embassy. Walking down the street, men and young boys would spit on me, angrily screaming and pushing me into the "jube"- the open water system running between the sidewalk and the streets, forcing me into overly congested, impossible traffic that makes a crowded L.A. freeway look empty. In fact, "Argo" captures these crowds and the traffic texture in the streets perfectly, right down to the orange taxis, known as Paykans. They are recognizable to anyone who spent time in one as I did, trying to navigate the streets of Tehran with the driver, only wishing I learned more than a few words in Farsi.
Another scene accurately depicts a crowd of angry men in the bazaar shouting at some of the women in the film-scouting party, blaming them for continued U.S. support of the Shah, who they believed was responsible for torture, death squads and economic suppression in the country. I saw, and was in the middle of this scene in real time as well. Wonderful Iranian friends (we still keep in touch) expressed great concerns about the possibility of a coming religious revolution, describing a scenario that could overthrow the Shah, impact relations with the U.S. and expel other Westerners.
In the early summer, I spent a weekend visiting new friends in a city a couple of hundred miles north of Tehran. Like Shiraz and Isfahan, it really provided some context to what had been described as "old world Persia." After the family driver dropped us off downtown to walk around, I looked over my right shoulder and noticed him in the car following us very slowly. Asking about him, my friends told me they didn't want to frighten me, but there had been instances of open violence toward American women walking in the streets. Some had acid thrown in their faces, a few even kidnapped. The driver was there to send a message-my friends and I had protection. By this time, I was happy to have him around.
On my return to Tehran, the ambassador requested I spend less time on the streets, more time on the Embassy compound, saying it was too difficult to guarantee my safety. Given the political climate in the country, we decided not to extend our assignment another 6-12 months, returning to Washington. The plan was for me to return to Tehran with the NBC newsmagazine crew and anchor, reporting the mood of the country in late 1978, early 1979. So much for that plan — the Embassy was attacked in February, 1979 (one month after the Shah fled Iran) and captors took Americans hostage for a few hours. The next time, Americans wouldn’t be so lucky; by November, the angry mob stormed over the gates, holding Americans helpless for 444 days.
In a recent exclusive interview with TheWrap, Affleck talked about the difficulties "Argo" presented in terms of getting moviegoers to the theater saying, "This is a hard movie to sell. I think this movie has to hold to be successful. If it doesn't, I won't be happy. It needs good word of mouth. If it doesn't happen I'll be disappointed."
Frankly, it's pretty astonishing to me it got made at all, even though it has the support of co-producer George Clooney and his production company. Most studios have difficulty seeing any upside and box office potential to movies that parallel news stories even ones, even ones that mesmerized the entire nation for such a long period of time.
There are exceptions of course. During my years at MGM/UA, they released "Hotel Rwanda,’ the true story of a hotel manager and his wife who saved the lives of many during the Rwandan genocide. We generated increased box office buzz by reaching out to news colleagues and by placing strategic op-eds with Nick Kristoff at the N.Y. Times and others, who gave the film ample coverage. Connecting the film's real life heroes with the President generated pictures that instantly went worldwide, giving much needed attention to this overlooked genocide.
The same is true of the film "Osama" a low-budget film depicting the harsh realities of life for young girls and women in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Again we reached out to the news and the political world with screenings for the administration, State Department, and a bipartisan support group headed up by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton to encourage education for young girls. (This film still resonates today with the current news story of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan on her way home from school).
What "Argo really accomplishes is masterful, ambitious storytelling, merging the people and power in Washington, Hollywood and Tehran holding the fate of not only the six who escaped, but impacting the other 52 held for 444 days. From my vantage point, navigating people and power in these waters, I'm rooting for "Argo" to get some Oscar nominations, including best director for Affleck. "Argo" was a gutsy career move for him. And given Mendez's highly proven skill set, not only as a brilliant CIA agent, but his ability to navigate and survive Hollywood, he might consider a second career as a studio executive.
As for box office returns, "Argo" generated a more-than-respectable more $19.4 million and earned the No. 2 spot in its first weekend of release, jaw-dropping, given the subject matter. It received a very strong second-weekend bounce, benefiting from attention generated in the second Presidential debate that discussion addressed slain American Ambassador Chris Stevens and the Americans killed at the consulate in Benghazi. This "gotcha" moment between President Obama and Governor Romney even had moderator Candy Crowley jumping in to break up the brawl, replayed continuously on YouTube and most news shows, even CNBC.
Now "Argo" has even managed to top the box office in its third weekend, with $12 million over the three days, beating the Tom Hanks’ movie "Cloud Atlas." Smart moviegoers and news junkies are connecting with "Argo" and taking note. Heads up, studio executives!
This column first appeared in the Huffington Post.