Local couple has special connection to movie ‘Argo’
Jim and Karan Smith of Gothenburg plan to see “Argo” on Sunday.
Playing at the Sun Theatre this weekend, the movie dramatizes the true story of a joint CIA-Canadian operation to smuggle six Americans out of revolutionary Iran in 1980.
“We were waiting until it came to Gothenburg to see it,” Karan said.
The Smith’s have a unique relationship with the main character of the movie, CIA agent Tony Mendez played by Ben Affleck. Tony has been described as the mastermind behind the escape and has written a couple of books about the event that happened during the Iranian hostage crisis.
Tony was married to Jim’s sister, Karen, who died of lung cancer in 1985—five years after her husband led the fugitives out of Tehran.
“He wishes she would have been here for what’s happening now,” said Karan, who still corresponds with Tony.
Following the declassification of the mission in 1997, Tony wrote a book “The Master of Disguise” from which parts were taken to create the film. Another book by Tony, “Argo” was released in September.
The story is almost too crazy to believe as Tony, the CIA agent, and the six Americans pose as a Canadian film crew that is scouting locations for a fake science-fiction movie called “Argo.”
In Greek mythology, Argo is the ship Jason and the Argonauts sail to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
Tony, who is now retired from the CIA, met Karen at a swimming pool in Denver, where the Smiths grew up.
They married in 1960 and, after working as a plumber and illustrator, Tony joined the CIA’s technical services staff, later becoming its chief of disguise.
Karan said the couple lived in places around the world, residing in Bangkok, Thailand, for several years. Jim and Karen’s mother lived with them there for several years.
Karen and Tony had three children, who are now grown. Two of the children—Amanda and Toby and a child Tony had with his second wife—appear in the movie as extras as do Tony and his second wife, Jonna, Karan said.
“They’re walking down the hall in an airport,” she said, noting that the picture of a 10-year-old shown in the film is Karen and Tony’s son, Ian, who died of cancer.
The Smiths remember celebrating Christmas with Jim’s family, including the Mendezes, after the Argo operation.
“We learned about it then but we couldn’t say anything,” Karan said. “After they got to Switzerland (following the mission), he sat under a tree and drank Russian vodka. He was so relieved.”
Karen and her immediate family were under special protection during some of Tony’s covert operations.
“Karen was always worried when he left on missions,” Karan said.
Jim said Tony was gone much of the couple’s married life which Tony alludes to in “The Master of Disguise.”
After retiring from the CIA, he said: “I deeply regretted that Karen, who had borne so much of the burden of those early years, was not here.”
Tony writes about surprising her with a hot-air balloon ride for her 40th birthday over a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland where they built a log home.
“This small extravagance hardly compensated for countless missed birthdays and anniversaries, when professional assignments had pulled me away from her and the children.
“When I had been in the mountains of Laos, on extended duty in South Asia, or in the Soviet bloc, I had often thought of our life together in this Blue Ridge retreat after retirement, when I would finally have the chance to paint full time, which had been one of our naive dreams as a young couple in Denver.
Two years after that, Tony hired a balloonist to scatter Karen’s ashes over the wooded hillside “she loved so deeply.”
The Smiths donated “The Master of Disguise” to the Gothenburg City Library where it’s available for the public to read.