CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In the Oscar-nominated movie "Argo," Hodding Carter III gets only the briefest mention: a secretary shouting his name as a parade of frenzied White House staffers rushes down a hallway.
But anyone who lived through the Iran hostage crisis will remember Carter as the public face of the year-long emergency. As spokesman for the State Department, he fed news to a ravenous pack of Washington journalists, fielding questions so persistent that he once threw a rubber chicken at an irksome reporter.
Carter, now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, finds himself fielding questions from "Argo" fans who hadn't been born when militants seized 52 Americans in Tehran, hadn't heard of the Shah and can't remember when yellow ribbons hung from every tree. "It's a terrific movie -- reasonable right up to the end," Carter said, praising "Argo" as mostly accurate. "It actually makes alive, for a moment, something which is ancient history. Some of the students are just surprised by the drama of it all."
Starring and directed by Ben Affleck, "Argo" follows the improbable CIA mission to rescue six other Americans (not part of the 52), who holed up in the Canadian embassy. They got out of Iran by posing as the film crew for a fake science-fiction movie being shot in Tehran.
"Argo" -- considered a favorite to win best picture at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night -- re-creates 1980 in all its chain-smoking, moustache-sporting excess. It portrays the Washington bureaucrats who pulled off the rescue as tough-talking and profane. Nostalgia practically rises from the screen. Ted Koppel has brown hair. Tom Brokaw looks a bit shaggy. At one point, a character watching a 1980 newscast comments, "John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what is left of America?"
From his office at UNC, where he teaches public policy, Carter says he knew nothing about the secret operation dubbed "The Movie Option."
"Hell, no," he said. "I didn't have any idea. I didn't even know they were in the Canadian embassy."
He first heard about the plan from an NBC News correspondent, who came into Carter's office to talk about his scoop. "He said, 'Hodding, I'm not going to go with this story because I'm a patriot, and I'm not going to endanger anyone,' " Carter recalled. " 'But I want 15 minutes of lead time before the story comes out.' "
The reporter kept mum. But Carter didn't feed him a tip before the rescue became huge news. "It wasn't because I didn't want to," he said.
The film shows American outrage and frustration boiling over into an identity crisis. Shouldn't we, characters in "Argo" ask, simply invade Iran? Would the Soviets sit still for this?