Real story of ‘Argo’ in what reporters didn’t say
February 26, 2013 - Updated: 1:06 p.m.
Newly crowned best picture “Argo” is about a fake science fiction movie that was created as a ruse to bring home six American diplomats who were hiding out during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.
But after watching “Argo” over the weekend, I’m thinking the finished product is nearly as fanciful as the film that was never meant to be made.
That’s the trouble when you know more facts than you should about something, I guess.
What happened in Iran more than three decades ago always boils down to a couple of deeply personal things to me:
The biggest scoop I ever had.
And the most meaningful decision of my newsmongering career.
My unexpected intrusion into this international crisis centered on a U.S. agricultural attaché who was serving in Tehran when militants stormed our embassy on Nov. 4, 1979.
His name is Lee Schatz.
The fact Schatz was a Post Falls native drew me to his Rathdrum Prairie homestead, where I interviewed his mom, Marge, as she was fixing dinner.
A gracious woman, Marge Schatz spoke freely about her son.
A little too freely, some would say.
As I sat at her kitchen table scribbling notes, she told me about the good news she had just received over the phone from the government:
Lee was OK and hiding out with Swedish officials.
You won’t see any mention of Swedes in “Argo,” which is a shame. America will always owe Sweden a debt for saving this young man’s hide.
Schatz, as he later told me, was spared by the blindest of luck.
Heading back to the U.S. Embassy after a meeting, he stopped to chat with a friend just as angry demonstrators were gathering outside the gates.
While Schatz waited, the noisy mob began to disperse.
“I actually followed them down a street while another group of demonstrators came in behind me to take their place,” Schatz told me in a prior interview.
“There was about a two- or three-minute window of time where I could walk to my offices, about a block and half away, before they started going over the walls.”
Schatz waited calmly in his office, believing the situation would blow over the way a similar occupation had fizzled some months before. He even sent his driver out to get burgers for lunch.
Sweden, said Schatz, had no desire to get involved in our heartburn.
But hours after the takeover the Swedes made a decision to do what was right. They gave Schatz safe harbor.
“I guess they thought it was the thing to do,” he told me for a 10th anniversary column I wrote for this newspaper in 1989.
Schatz spent a day and a half in the Swedish Embassy.
He then moved to a Swedish diplomat’s apartment, where the American laid low for the next 10 days.
Meanwhile, back in North Idaho, I had a story to write.
One of my former editors had this saying.
“When in doubt, print what you know.”
I couldn’t do it. Publishing something that might get Schatz nabbed or worse was beyond me.
And so the piece I typed on Nov. 10 contained no Swedish references.
After that the story moved on. As Schatz later revealed, he was transferred to lodgings furnished by the Canadian government, where five other Americans had also wound up.
The six lived in relative ease, eating well and even playing Scrabble.
But pressure was mounting.
Journalists were picking away at the story.
Canadian reporter Jean Pellitier pretty much had the entire mystery unraveled. Refusing to buckle to an editor’s insistence, he held off printing what he knew until the diplomats came home.
Can you imagine such a thing happening in today’s age of tweets and WikiLeaks, where sensitive information is often spewed without any morality or thought behind it?
“Today it’s throw the spaghetti and see if it sticks,” the 64-year-old told me during a phone call Monday.
The final act in this reality play came through cleverness and amazing cooperation between Canada and the U.S.
Canada had already furnished the six Americans with forged passports and plane tickets.
Then CIA officer Tony Mendez showed up. One of his plans, as the movie depicts, was to have the diplomats pose as a Canadian film crew in Iran to scout locations for a space odyssey, “Argo.”
But it was the Americans who chose the Argo scheme over two other plans that were far more problematic.
And so on Jan. 29, 1980, they all went to the Tehran airport, presented their bogus paperwork and boarded a plane that took them home without incident.
Note those words: without incident.
Unlike “Argo” the movie, nobody had to show storyboard panels to a wary Iranian official. No guns went off at the last minute. No vehicles filled with angry and armed Iranians chased the Swissair jet down the runway as it took flight.
And when you see “Argo,” pay attention to the tense scene where the diplomats visit the bazaar on a supposed scouting mission that devolves into a dangerous shoving match with the locals.
Reality, alas, is rarely good enough for Hollywood.
But I can’t be too hard. Though critical of the movie’s many flaws the first time he saw it, Schatz mellowed after a second viewing.
“It’s a movie, guys, it’s not history.”
But like the best spy work, the Canadian Caper – as Canada dubbed the mission – went off without a wrinkle.
The release, however, was bittersweet for Schatz, who canceled his own welcome home party. He found little reason to celebrate, considering 53 hostages would remain imprisoned under brutal conditions for 444 days.
In “Argo” the movie, Schatz’s character is referred to as “a bit of an oddball from Idaho.”
“More of an individual from Idaho,” Schatz countered, chuckling. “We have a different approach.”
Schatz lives near Annapolis, Md., today. He still works for the Department of Agriculture and loves the foreign field. He’s been involved in agricultural projects in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.
Sunday night, however, found him in front of his television, watching with delight as “Argo” took home the big prize.
So in the end it all worked out for everyone.
Schatz and the others got home safely. Affleck got his Oscar.
And I got a nice attaboy letter from Idaho’s then-U.S. Sen. Frank Church after a Washington Post story broke about those who kept their mouths shut.
The letter’s up in my attic, I think, stowed inside a briefcase that is buried under a couple tons of household clutter.
Someday I should probably launch a rescue mission to try to get it out.
Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.