The Real Argo: Revisiting the great escape

By Scott Kara

A new doco tells the actual story behind Ben Affleck's Argo. Scott Kara reports.

Ben Affleck won an Oscar with his take on the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, a dramatisation of real-life events which happened to former diplomats Mark and Cora Lijek.
Ben Affleck won an Oscar with his take on the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, a dramatisation of real-life events which happened to former diplomats Mark and Cora Lijek.

Mark Lijek loved Ben Affleck's film Argo, but there were a few flaws in the Oscar-winning movie. He should know, because Lijek and his wife, Cora, were key players in the story on which the film was based. They were among the group of six United States diplomats who posed as a film crew and made a daring escape from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

"There were parts of the film that were quite realistic but we were not chased down the runway," says Lijek, referring to the film's dramatic ending.

However, there were times during Argo that brought back some haunting memories for Lijek, especially the scenes where the demonstrators take over the American embassy in Tehran.

"Those were almost frighteningly realistic. But the further the film goes into our situation it takes dramatic licence. The airport was not really dramatic at all. Not to say there were no hitches, but it was fairly routine."

The National Geographic documentary, The Real Argo, tells the story from the perspective of the Lijeks, and Tony Mendez, the former CIA officer portrayed in the film by Affleck.

"As much as I loved the movie, it's good the true story gets out too," says Lijek on the phone from his home in a remote area half way between Seattle and Vancouver (he's careful not to give away the exact location).

And yes, says Lijek, the New Zealand Embassy staff were very helpful during the days before they made their escape, which is in stark contrast to an allegation made in the film that Kiwi and British diplomats refused to help the six Americans. Lijek becomes passionate when he talks about this factual oversight.

"I think Affleck really wanted to make the film authentic, and he used that word a number of times in the meeting with us, but his sense of authenticity had more to do with mood and costumes and haircuts and the enormous eye-glasses.

"The film is very good, but what I find inexplicable is that it would have been very easy to put some of the key players back into the film without changing the fundamentals. For example, to include a positive reference to the New Zealanders, who were extremely helpful, rather than a negative reference. That wasn't even in the script that we saw, so it must have been a late addition."

While The Real Argo is a mix of interviews, historic news footage, and dramatic re-enactments, the opening scenes of the documentary are just as tense as Affleck's film. It's not so much the sacking of the embassy that has you on the edge of your seat, but the diplomats desperate search for a safe haven on the streets outside the compound.

"I found it gripping even though I know how things turn out," Lijek says.

As they roam the streets trying to avoid roadblocks and armed protesters, it's virtually impossible for the blond Lijek to remain inconspicuous. "I stuck out. I had dirty blond hair. I obviously didn't look Iranian."

Cora and Mark Lijek who feature in documentary the Real Argo.
Cora and Mark Lijek who feature in documentary the Real Argo.

The Lijeks arrived in Tehran on their first overseas posting near the end of 1978. It was a volatile place that six months later turned to chaos. Going to work was like crossing a picket line every day - although Lijek says the demonstrators never thumped the car as they did in Argo.

And during one unnerving experience Lijek was stopped at a roadblock and held for two hours. He was lectured about how he and Cora should have had children by now, judged by the length of their marriage. "In hindsight, it was almost comical, but at the time it certainly wasn't. I guess it's just that we hadn't been there that long."

These days the six "house guests" - a name Lijek uses because they hid at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor - have a reunion every five years. The next, in 2014, will mark the 35th anniversary of their escape.

Lijek says he can have a bit of a chuckle about the bizarre way they got out of Iran.

"For us it was a big adventure with a happy ending. It was a very different story for the hostages," he says of the 52 embassy staff who were held for 444 days.

"But ours is a fun story, and it's a good story. Everything worked for us and we were incredibly lucky. And it may sound weird, but there really aren't any negatives for our little group.

"We had all the luck we needed and our lives were changed in a positive way."

Who: Mark Lijek, former US diplomat

What: The Real Argo, a documentary telling the true story of how six United States diplomats escaped from Iran; it was the subject of Ben Affleck's film Argo

Where and when: National Geographic Channel, Wednesday, 7.30pm

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