Ex-diplomat depicted in Argo film will speak in Victoria Monday, set record straight

The movie Argo proves that when Hollywood says “authentic” it doesn’t necessarily mean “accurate,” says one of the six American diplomats depicted in the movie.

“The atmospherics [of the movie] were good,” Mark Lijek said in a telephone interview from his home in Anacortes, Wash., where he lives with his wife, Cora Amburn-Lijek, who was also portrayed in Argo.

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“Tehran and even, to a point, the dynamics within our group were well portrayed,” said Lijek, now 62 and retired. But, as has been contended in Canada, the Oscar-winning film is somewhat short on credit for Canadian embassy officials, who sheltered the six Americans for 79 days and helped them flee Iran in January 1980.

“I tried to make that point to several of the producers, but they said it wasn’t essential for the story and it just complicated things,” he said.

Lijek will be in Victoria Monday to speak at the Union Club in an event co-sponsored by the club’s centennial legacy committee and the Canadian International Council Victoria Branch.

During the initial stages of the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, the Lijeks were diplomatic staff at the American embassy when it was stormed and seized.

While 52 other diplomats were held hostage at the U.S. embassy, the Lijeks and four others were safeguarded in the homes of Canadian embassy officials.

In a scheme concocted by CIA specialist Tony Mendez, played in the movie by actor and director Ben Affleck, the six escaped, disguised as Canadian filmmakers.

Lijek said he and the other five were first sheltered at the home of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, who was a friend of the Lijeks’ colleague, Robert Anders. Sheardown died on Dec. 30 last year.

When Anders called his friend for help, Sheardown answered: “What took you so long?”

Later, two of the six were moved to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. Lijek said the move to put two Americans with the Canadian ambassador was a deliberate safeguard in case of discovery. He said Taylor told them he wanted to demonstrate that sheltering the six was an official act of Canadian government policy. It was not a case of diplomatic underlings acting on their own.

In fact, then-prime minister Joe Clark approved the plan.

The movie left all of that out. Lijek said the real Ken Taylor was a far more dynamic character than he was portrayed in the movie, played by Canadian actor Victor Garber.

But for Lijek, the most troubling oversight was Argo’s omission of Sheardown and his wife Zena, their sanctuary hosts. “We really bonded with them so it was very disconcerting to find they were not going to be in the film,” Lijek said.

Most glaringly inaccurate was the climactic scenes of armed Iranians chasing their jetliner down the runway when they finally left Iran.

But Lijek said after talks with Affleck and subsequent movie makers, he realized it was more important for the filmmakers to get certain looks accurate than stick to hard facts.

Filmmakers spent thousands of dollars getting special, extra-large, 1970s eyeglasses made for Lijek’s character, he said. But they made non-smoker Cora a cigarette user in the movie, when Mark was the smoker.

Further, the script has a character calling out diplomats from Britain and New Zealand for refusing them help when, in truth, both those embassies were nearly as helpful as the Canadians.

“And for that they get slammed,” Lijek said. “If we had only been asked, we could have come up with a couple of countries that really did turn us down, like the Germans.”

Since Argo’s release, Lijek said he has been asked to talk at a number of events, often where the movie is shown. As a result, he has seen the movie seven times and he always enjoys it. “I usually find something new, something different every time I watch it,” he said.

He gives the movie credit for capturing the feelings and tensions of the time. He also believes the depiction of the phony movie production to bolster their disguises is good.

“A friend of mine was in L.A. and he sent me a photograph of the building in which the [movie production] offices were located,” he said. “I guess the building still stands.”

Mark and Cora Lijek will be at the Union Club at 11:30 a.m. Monday. Tickets are $30 for members and $35 for guests. For reservations, call 250-384-1151.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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