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Mark Lijek Interview: Real life Argo hostage! #MidDay #Argo

The Best Bad Idea They Had

Mark Lijek, one of the actual hostages who escaped from the midst of the Iranian revolution in 1979 in what was then termed as the ‘Canadian Caper’ and is now a brilliant motion picture, Argo, gives us an account of what really went down

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Mid-Day. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/qVX153
It didn’t seem like a good idea at all. Rescuing six American diplomats – Bob Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz –from right under the nose of the Iranians in the middle of a revolution, in which 52 other American hostages had been captured, for what went on to be 444 days, was a proposition that bordered on the impossible. And when CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez suggested creating a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, posing as its producer on location scout to the exotic Middle East, flying in solo to Tehran and flying out with the six Americans pretending to be his crew…. the proposition turned ridiculous. But then again, some propositions are so ridiculous, they can only be a success.

Iran Calling
Born in Detroit 1951, Mark Lijek, who now lives a happily retired life with his wife, Cora Lijek and his two children in Northwest, Washington, was only 27 and newly married, when he was “asked to volunteer” to the trouble region of Iron as part of the United States of America’s Foreign Service. “In hindsight, it was probably stupidity that made me take it up,” he chuckles. “But truth be told, it was my very first assignment, and I got the offer in November 1978, when there was no real indication that there would be any danger.”

 

Mark Lijek at the time
Mark Lijek at the time

By the time Mark landed in Tehran in July on 1979, he realised that he had been terribly wrong. The ruling monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty, Shah Reza Mohammad Pahlavi, had been overthrown and religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had come to power. Armed gangs, called the “revolutionary committees” had taken over every neighbourhood. It was the US government’s confidence that American diplomats wouldn’t be in danger that made Mark and his wife, Cora, carry on in Iran. But within four months of Mark’s posting there, on November 4, 1979, the American embassy was attacked.

The attack and the escape
Mark vividly remembers the day. “We only had 2 US Marines guarding the 26 acre compound which formed the two buildings of the American embassy. We got fortunate on two accounts – one, the tourist visa section, where we were holed up, was shut that day, and two, our building had direct access to a back lane, where visa applicants would normally line up. I suppose the protestors assumed there was no one inside, but even then, people climbed into our 2nd floor bathrooms through a ladder, as the only marine with us pushed it the ladder away and threw a tear gas bomb. As we blocked the entrance through coat hangers, our generator went off and we were in total darkness. We then smelled smoke and heard people on our roof, and it was the most nerve-wracking moment of my life. When we realised that no help was coming, we got the permission to escape through the back entrance.”

After this dramatic escape, for the next six days, the five Americans (Lee Schatz joined them later) changed several locations to escape being caught. “It was too dangerous to stay with the Brits, because they were attacked themselves,” Mark recalls. “We moved in the day, trying to pass off as Iranians, because there were roadblocks and checks at night. I remember one night we didn’t sleep at all expecting to be attacked any moment but the guard of the compound managed to convince the revolutionaries that there were no foreigners where we hid, and we had a narrow escape.”

This is when the Canadians came to the rescue. Anders had a friend in the Canadian embassy, John Sheardown, the Canadian Chief of Immigrations, who graciously welcomed them to take refuge in his house. Bob Anders, Lee Schatz and the Lijeks stayed in the Sheardowns’ residence, while the Staffords’ stayed at the house of Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.

79 Days of Confusion
Finally having got a place to hide, at first, having no other choice but to wait to be rescued by their governments, the houseguests had a “pleasant time” thanks to their Canadian hosts. But then days turned into weeks, and weeks into months and there was still no sign of a rescue. A scary realisation crept amongst them: “If the negotiations between the US and the Ayatollah regime would have worked out and they would have released the hostages, we couldn’t have gone with them because in the eyes of the Ayatollah, we didn’t even exist,” says Mark. “By suddenly turning up, we could have put the negotiations as well as the lives of the hostages in danger. Plus, every day we stayed with the Canadians, we were putting them in danger too. In the meantime, an American businessman who had escaped independently, and who knew about us, revealed it to the press. Luckily for us, the news didn’t get picked up by the media at large. So it had become clear to us that we would need a rescue independent of the outcome of the hostage negotiation, and fast!”

The real hostages
The real hostages

Their prayers were answers on January 26th when CIA infiltration expert, Tony Mendez walked in, under his cover name, Kevin Harkins, and told them that he would get them out of Iran, and all they had to do was pretend to be Canadians from Hollywood! “Tony suggested other options like posing as teachers or oil engineers, but we loved the Hollywood idea only because it was too flamboyish,” says Mark. “People from Hollywood live in an unreal world and think of themselves as special. So it was actually believable that they would go to a country in the middle of a revolution to shoot a movie. The other reason we went with the plan was because Tony had detailed it out elaborately, and his eyes would lit up when he spoke about it!”

The Rescue
The day before the escape was spent by the six in preparing the background of their new identities and mastering the Canadian accent. Everything seemed in place, until the actual day of escape arrived, and multiple dramatic moments had them skipping their heartbeats. “Several things almost went wrong,” chuckles Mark. “Tony Mendez overslept, the immigration officer almost held up Lee because his moustache was longer than that in his passport, we didn’t have immigration forms and could have been caught had the officer there decided to check them. And after we managed to pass every check, we realised our plane had a technical malfunction and we had no option but to wait with bated breath!

“Joe (Stafford) also almost got us caught. He was never happy with the plan because he thought it was our moral responsibility to wait till the other hostages are released, and he felt that having fake Canadian passports bordered on espionage. So he didn’t bother to change his appearance, he would call all of us by our real names and at one point, he even started reading a Farsi newspaper at the airport, though his cover wasn’t supposed to know the language! I remember Tony hit him in the shin to get him to act normal, as we were just moments away from escape.”

But the ridiculous had already worked: The plane was repaired

Mark Lijek Today
Mark Lijek Today

sooner than they thought, and the six, along with Mendez, waited for it to cross the Iranian airspace, before they could order Bloody Marys and raise a toast to themselves. “Even then, we didn’t really celebrate much, because for all we knew, the Iranian sitting next to us could be the Tehran Police Chief!” laughs Mark.

All these years later, Mark, who went back to the Foreign Service even after the rather inauspicious beginning, believes that the only reason they all managed to pull it off was because they pretended that it was a game. “We had no other choice, really,” he chuckles. “It was the best bad idea we had.”

 

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Note: This interview first appeared in Mid-Day on December 23, 2012
Link: http://www.mid-day.com/articles/the-best-bad-idea-they-had/193738
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Dark. Twisted. Funny. Fucked Up. Gone Girl. #Review #GoneGirl

As I sat watching Gone Girl and the movie unravelled one of its incredible plot twists, I could sense a feeling of dread settle into couples throughout the theatre. I was transfixed at what was happening on screen – and how staggering it was – yet, I was distinctly aware that a quiet unease was creeping its way into the psyche of every couple, married or otherwise, as the theatre slowly fell into an uncomfortable silence. Perhaps this was the paranoia that the movie had projected unto me manifesting itself into a dark, perverse fantasy about the lives of others, or perhaps, Gone Girl is, in fact, the kind of movie that will make every couple momentarily reassess all that is right, and certainly all that is wrong with their relationship.

To say that Gone Girl is a thriller about a the hunt for the missing wife of a seemingly sociopathic man (or look at it as a thriller from the angle that you’ll see when you watch the film) will be a gross misjudgement of what director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn have attempted to do with the movie, and will be a much too simplistic – and inaccurate – reduction of what is undoubtedly one of the most twisted and murky deliberations of marriage on the big screen.

That marriage is not easy is a fact that has been explored through several prisms in many a great films of our times, and of that before, from Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? to Blue Valentine. But just how f**ked up marriage, or for that matter, relationships can be, has arguably yet to be dissected in a manner in which Fincher and Flynn together do through the movie.

Gone Girl takes any and all expectations a viewer may have aligned himself with when going into the movie, and then smashes them to pieces, much like it does to every thought we may have had about the institution of marriage, or about what it means to be in a committed relationship. What the movie may do to couples watching it together is entirely dependent on just how seriously they take the movie or for that matter, just how mature or happy they are, because at its best, Gone Girl is a movie that can save a troubled marriage; and at its worst, it is the most horrid and unpleasant date movie of all time.

On the other hand, and in a most brilliant contradiction to the theme of the film, Gone Girl is also a first rate black comedy and satire. I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions through the film, because its meditation on the bizarreness, incredulity, ridiculousness, stupidity, ethical and moral ambiguity, and the complete and utter disregard for professionalism that has become the media, is top class and should necessarily be seen and taken with a very big salt of pinch by everyone who works in the profession themselves.

David Fincher has used the plot of the movie to deliver a scathing diatribe on what has come to be called the ‘media circus’, where (no spoilers, don’t worry) people are put on trial and verdicts are passed without evidence, facts or even logic, where the convenient outcome is passed on the news as the right outcome, and where the consequence could be immense and tragic and yet no individual person has to take the fall – and which is why this unfortunate trend continues to grow, unabated.

Cinematically speaking, there’s nothing I can tell you that you wouldn’t know already: Fincher’s direction is outstanding, the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is fantastic, Flynn’s screenplay is far too superior for being her first, and most other things including editing (Kirk Baxter), cinematography (Jeff Cronenweth) and the cast are near-perfect. But if there are two elements that stand tall among equals, they are the acting performances by leads Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

It’s funny how Matthew McConaughey’s McConaissance is spoken about with much ferocity all over the internet when Ben Affleck underwent a McConaissance, or Benaissance, if you may, much before he did. This is an actor whose performance does not rely on histrionics or dramatics but on subtlety – and Affleck betrays the confidence of an actor who could be, at this stage of his career, unbeatable at his game. This is a performance worthy of many rewards, and oh man, I can’t wait to see Affleck as Batman now. He’s going to fucking kill it! Since I can’t say much about Pike because of spoilers, let me say this: The greatest actress you didn’t know of so far has arrived, and how. Her performance is the stuff of legend (and I believe it would’ve been amplified if the film were to be shown without cuts).

Since I don’t need to convince you any more to go watch the movie, let me say this: I don’t think it was a perfect movie because the end didn’t go down well with me (I will write why after everyone’s seen it). And I still think Fincher’s best films are The Social Network and Fight Club. But if you are a fan of movies, and particularly of movie experiences, Gone Girl is as unique an experience as you’d get at the movies. Do not miss it.

P.S.: If you liked the film, you are going to love these alternate posters of Gone Girl: http://goo.gl/qe98H3


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© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.