Among the movies up for Best Pictures in Sunday’s Academy Awards is Argo, Ben Affleck’s tense drama about six Americans who escaped the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They were rescued in a preposterous CIA plot involving a fake sci-fi movie. One of the six Americans lives in Fairfax County.
“We could see them through the window coming across the compound,” says Kathleen Stafford. “They were saying, you know, ‘Death to America. Death to the Shah,’ things like that.
It wasn’t Hollywood for Stafford. It was real.
She and her husband Joe, portrayed in Affleck’s movie, were State Department workers who escaped when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy and took 52 hostages. Stafford and five others hid in Canadian officials’ homes for 80 days.
“We would sit on the couch and feel bad all day because we’re putting them in danger,” she says.
And when the CIA decided to get them out by having a fake Canadian production crew pretend to make a sci-fi flick, Stafford couldn’t believe it.
“I thought it was crazy! But on the other hand, we all had roles we were comfortable with.”
Stafford became Rachel Dewort, a graphic designer.
“I thought I can play this role. Besides that, I’d been reading John le Carré
books, all of them.”
The movie does take liberties: Two CIA agents actually got them out, not one. The Americans were split up between two Canadian homes. The bazaar scene never happened, nor did the nail biter of a chase at the airport.
In real life Stafford is an artist. Her paintings from the couple’s various State Department postings in Africa are currently on display at the Alexandria Black History Museum.
Her husband is now posted in Sudan while she works at home in Fairfax. There were many heroes in this story, she says, especially the Canadians.
“To stay there, too, for all those months and hide us, knowing that they could be arrested, they are the real heroes.”
Incidentally, she’s already seen Argo three times.
“It’s a wonderful blockbuster.”