Does “Argo” shortchange Canadians?

Emphasis on the “based on,” many Canadians would say.

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?


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9 Comments on “Does “Argo” shortchange Canadians?”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Hey, we’re Americans! We’re good at taking stuff, and nothing is more American than Hollywood where taking credit for other peoples’ ideas, work, and glory is institutionalized.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Neil Young, Peter Jennings, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, Pamela Anderson, Monty Hall, William Shatner, Michael J. Fox, Lorne Greene, k d lang, Sarah McLachlan, Alex Trebek and Alan Thicke (though I’m pretty sure they are the same person), Paul Schaeffer…all Americans.

  3. Larry says:

    Unless the movie is presented as a documentary, it’s “based on a true story” not literally representative of one. Nobody should confuse entertainment with reality and everyone should understand that “artistic license” is used in all movies and TV shows, to some degree.

  4. As a ‘half-Canadian’ (Canadian grandparents on both sides and married a Canadian) I have no doubt whatever that people in the US have an attitude that Canada is ‘lesser’ than the US. The most egregious attitude I’ve encountered was one time when I was in a Barnes & Noble (where on would expect to find relatively educated people) and was wearing a sweatshirt with ” CANADA” across the front I overheard a comment to the effect that Canada wasn’t’ a “real” country. They only managed to exist because of US support. The hubris of many on this side of the border knows no bounds.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    What? The movie is fiction based upon a true story. The movie Titanic was fiction based upon a true story. Just about every war movie is fiction based upon a true story.
    Truth be told, just about every documentary, just about every memoir, biography and autobiography boils down to fiction based upon a true story.
    Grow up.
    I’ll even go so far as to say and probably offend, the bible is fiction based upon a true story.

  6. Walker says:

    If someone were to make a movie of the famous 1980 Miracle on Ice but have the victory go to Canada, the howls from this side of the border would be deafening.

  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    U-571, American movie that took credit from the Brits for capturing German cipher machine.

  8. Newt says:

    FWIW, there was a made for TV movie about the Canadian role in saving the embassy staff done about 20 years ago. I won’t remember a whole lot about it, but there was no doubt in that one about who was the courage and skill of the Canadians. Of course, like so many movies, it was probably shot in Canada.

  9. Newt says:

    We saw Argo last night, and it awesome! Even though I knew the story and had read several reviews, I was still on the edge of my seat for the last 15 minutes of the escape sequence .

    Regarding Canada not getting proper credit, there is a quick line where CIA officers are discussing the situation of the six escaped embassy staff. It goes something like “The Brits and the Kiwis (New Zealanders) turned them away, but the Canadians took them in.” I assume this is correct, and it indirectly gives a lot of credit where credit is due.

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