Perhaps it is just human nature to be more interested in stories about one’s own country and fellow citizens. Matter of fact, the following complaint proves it: Canadians wish the newly released movie “Argo” was more about Canadians!
That’s not too unreasonable, though, because the real-life story that inspired the movie featured some pretty brave Canadians in the first place.
“Argo”, which the New York Times calls “a smart, jittery thriller about a freakish and little-known chapter of the Iranian hostage crisis” took something that really happened, usually called “the Canadian Caper” and tweeked it to be all about “U.S.” (Or so some complaints on this side of the border would have it.)
“Argo” opened in Ottawa Friday, Oct 12. I haven’t seen it yet. But this subject has been bouncing around in the Canadian press for a while now, so I wanted to share it with In Box readers.
The movie was directed by Ben Affleck who also stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez. Here’s the set up, during the 1979 hostage crisis, as recounted in the Times review:
Turning history into farce probably wasn’t what Antonio J. Mendez, a Central Intelligence Agency officer, was after when he was tapped to help free six State Department employees stranded in Tehran. While revolutionary forces were overrunning the embassy and taking hostages, including the 52 men and women who were held for 444 days, five Americans fled undetected. Eventually, they made their way to safety, including at the Canadian ambassador’s house, staying hidden (with a sixth escapee) while the C.I.A., the State Department and the president struggled to find a way to ferry them home. Mr. Mendez, a wizard of disguise, came up with the cover story for the six escapees that improbably stuck: They would pose as a Canadian movie crew.
Antonio Mendez is a real person, who seems to have lived an astonishing life. He’s an artist, an author and a highly decorated master of disguise who spent decades doing wild things for the CIA. There’s no reason to diminish his exploits. According to some accounts, like this CBC video interview, Mendez would have preferred to to follow a spy code of not talking about successes or explaining any failures. Still, a lot of Canadians might argue that “Argo” isn’t complete without properly crediting Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran at the time.
Here’s how the Tornoto Star describes Taylor’s role:
For three months, it was Taylor and his colleagues who housed the six Americans, who moved them around Tehran when the need arose, who tried to boost spirits, who visited and smuggled the odd banned libation to the three Americans confined to the Foreign Ministry, who fought for the release of all the hostages, and — in Taylor’s case — collected intelligence for Washington on possible rescue operations.
And here’s Taylor commenting on the movie:
“The movie’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s pertinent, it’s timely,” he said. “But look, Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.”
If Taylor headed the Canadian component of the rescue, he wasn’t the first Canadian official the Americans approached for shelter. According to the Star, “another Canadian who got tossed out of the story” was John Sheardown:
Sheardown, now in his late 80s and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and his wife, Zena, took in four of the Americans — at considerable risk to Zena who wasn’t a Canadian citizen and had no diplomatic immunity.
“To make the movie work, I guess, they assumed that everybody was with Pat and me,” Taylor said. “And John and Zena did yeoman work.”
When “Argo” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in early September, people who know Taylor were not amused by the slant of the film, or its original postscript. According to the Calgary Herald:
Initially, the postscript implied that Taylor received undue credit for sheltering and helping the six diplomats escape. The CIA, the film suggests, were the real heroes but chose not to take credit for fear of endangering the American hostages that remained in Iran. This is what greatly offended Taylor’s friends when the film had its high-profile premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
As Maclean’s Magazine put it, back in September:
Affleck’s neglect of Taylor’s role in the story was likely an innocent oversight. He put his faith in a script he didn’t write, and had no idea that he was about to inflame such a sensitive point of Canadian pride by diminishing a national hero.
The good news is Ben Affleck heard about the ruffled feathers and made a number of significant amends. He reached out to Taylor, listened to concerns about accuracy, and made a rare adjustment to the movie’s tag line, which the Star reports now reads:
“The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”
As reported in the Ottawa Citizen, Affleck also heaped praise on Taylor and the Canadian effort earlier this week:
“I consider Ken Taylor a very clear hero; he sheltered people who otherwise would have died,” Affleck said on the red carpet for the movie’s D.C. premiere.
Entertainment is escapist fare. You know – don’t let facts get in the way of a good story! And “Hollywood” – as a descriptive word – is almost synonymous with fantasy.
Still, is it really healthy to perpetually feed Americans the idea that they are the only players who count on the world stage? Or doth Canadians protest too much about who gets credit for what?