Ben Affleck rewrites history

‘Argo’ shifts the spotlight from Ken Taylor, our man in Tehran, to CIA spy Tony Mendez

by Brian D. Johnson

For a country that has a hard time finding heroes in its own history, Ken Taylor’s role in the Iran hostage crisis marks a glowing exception. When armed student militants occupied the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, six U.S. staff members escaped and found refuge in the Canadian Embassy. Taylor, then Canada’s ambassador to Iran, hid them as “house guests” for three months, then helped smuggle them out of the country. Two decades later, declassified CIA files showed Taylor had been working closely with America’s spymasters. And now the cloak-and-dagger tale takes on a bizarre twist with Argo, a Hollywood movie that had its premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival—by coincidence on the same day Stephen Harper’s government closed the Canadian Embassy in Tehran.

Directed by Ben Affleck, who stars as CIA officer Tony Mendez, Argo turns the story into a caper movie that’s part comedy, part thriller. It tells how Mendez worked with Hollywood to concoct a fake sci-fi movie about space aliens called Argo so that the six American hostages could pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran. With the help of a wise-cracking Hollywood producer (played by Alan Arkin) and a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman), Mendez forges an elaborate cover, compete with poster, script, storyboards and a production office.

A cheering audience at the TIFF premiere lapped up its bonanza of Canuck references—there’s a scene where Mendez coaches the Americans not to pronounce the second “t” in Toronto. Critics, meanwhile, stoked Oscar buzz. There’s just one problem. The movie rewrites history at Canada’s expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga’s heroic saviours while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge. Mendez did indeed work with Hollywood to forge an elaborate cover for the Canadian Embassy’s clandestine house guests. But Affleck’s movie underplays Taylor’s role. And Taylor is not amused.

“So much of the movie is total fiction,” says the 77-year-old former ambassador on the phone from his home in Manhattan. “My concern is that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.”

Taylor has not seen the movie. He wasn’t invited to the premiere. Neither the filmmakers nor Victor Garber, the Canadian actor who plays him, contacted him during production. “It’s been a total wall of silence,” says Taylor. But he’s seen the trailer, and friends who saw the TIFF screening in Toronto described the film in detail by phone. “My impression is that it’s very entertaining,” says Taylor. “I’m not feeling offended. It’s their movie. But it totally distorts the relationship between Canada and the U.S. with respect to the episode. I just think they didn’t want to be bothered with the facts. It’s a good story, which they stole.”

Garber says he chose to base his performance on the script and archival material. “I’m sorry he feels that way,” he said. “Maybe if he saw the film he might feel differently. I’m just an actor playing a role. I felt enormous responsibility and felt he was dealt with in a very good way. He was hardly diminished.”

There’s no question Argo works splendidly as a movie. Its sharp Hollywood satire, played by Arkin and Goodman, is on par with Wag the Dog and The Player. As it morphs into a white-knuckled thriller, even though we know how it ends, it sustains cliffhanger suspense. But the adrenalin is fuelled by a cascade of events that never happened (spoiler alert): Washington pulls the plug on the operation at the last minute, cancelling the fugitives’ plane tickets; they’re grilled by Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the gate; and in a Keystone Cops climax, their plane is chased down the tarmac by police cars.

It’s standard practice in Hollywood to mess with facts for dramatic effect. But Argo’s magnification of the U.S. role is “absolute nonsense,” says Taylor. “The departure went very smoothly. I bought the airline tickets—I bought sets from three different airlines and paid cash. And I had the final veto. For every hour spent in Washington, there were two spent in Ottawa. Mendez did not become involved until a month after we’d taken over. He spent two days there.”

Affleck was unavailable to comment on Taylor’s concerns at press time, but at a TIFF press conference after the premiere he discussed the film’s veracity. “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story,” he said, “we’re allowed to take some dramatic licence. There’s a spirit of truth.” As for the fanciful airport climax, screenwriter Chris Terrio said, “There is a catharsis when the plane takes off. To create that in cinematic form requires a lot of amp-up and drama to replicate what the house guests might have felt at that moment.”

Affleck stressed that “the kinds of things that are really important to be true are—for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. stood up collectively as a nation and said, ‘We like you, we appreciate you, we respect you, and we’re in your debt.’ That is accurate. There were folks who didn’t want to stick their necks out and the Canadians did. They said, ‘We’ll risk our diplomatic standing, our lives, by harbouring six Americans because it’s the right thing to do.’ Because of that, their lives were saved.”

Both Affleck and Terrio said they hoped Taylor would be “pleased” with the movie. But the film’s postscript implies Taylor got too much credit for the rescue, noting that “112 resolutions and proclamations were issued in his honour” before the CIA revealed the covert role played by Mendez and Hollywood makeup legend John Chambers, who designed Spock’s ears in Star Trek and won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes.

Argo is based on Mendez’s 2002 book, The Master of Disguise, and a 2007 article in Wired magazine. The former spy was in Toronto for the Argo premiere, and to promote a new book tied to it—Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History. He supports the movie’s dramatic licence, but then, as a CIA forger of fake identities, he’s composed his share of fiction. And in his memoirs, he had to fudge facts to elude CIA censorship. “The Master of Disguise,” says Mendez, “is populated by composite characters.”

It was his idea to create a fake sci-fi flick as a cover for the hostages, enlisting his friend Chambers, who had helped him upgrade the CIA’s disguise techniques. Chambers and a colleague opened a mock production office in a Hollywood studio and mounted a full publicity campaign, with ads for Argo in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

The fake campaign provides fodder for some hilarious satire in Affleck’s movie. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without doing anything?” says Arkin’s character. “You’ll fit right in.” In a town where lies are hard currency, he throws himself into the project: “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a hit.” And because the fugitives are posing as a Canadian crew, their film has the fake support of the Canadian Film Development Corp.—ironic given that CFDC was notorious at the time for funding its share of cheesy movies set up as tax-shelter scams.

Taylor still considers Mendez a friend, and they meet for occasional reunions. But he remains confident Canada could have devised a cheaper, simpler plan to rescue his house guests without the CIA. Flora MacDonald, then minister for external affairs, suggested making them petroleum engineers, he says. “But Washington wasn’t prepared to let someone else do it, and I can understand that.”

Although Taylor left Iran 32 years ago, he will always be identified as our man in Tehran. After Canada abruptly closed its Embassy last week, he spent the day fielding requests for interviews. “It was a bad move to close it,” he says. “You can’t leave a diplomatic mission just because you anticipate something going wrong. There’s a convenient role for Canada to play, to capture the mood of the people, and we could do it unobtrusively.”

As for Argo, it hits theatres Oct. 12, with the tagline: “The mission was real. The movie was fake.” But as the spirit of Hollywood fakery comes full circle, the line could refer to Affleck’s film. Meanwhile, it may only be a matter of time before some cheeky producer dusts off the old sci-fi Argo script, and shoots it in 3D.




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Ben Affleck rewrites history

  1. There may be a small something to Taylor’s role being played out HERE as more than it was–I’ve never heard there was a separate CIA operative involved, for example. So the movie downplayed his role more than it was. The idea is to make Americans want to see the film after all, and if its just a ‘Canada–or a Canadian–is great’ movie, would they really want to see it? At least this way, its an enjoyable movie for everyone, plus gives a hint of the history for those who don’t know this happened. And if anyone thinks Hollywood is going to ever stop downplaying Canada’s role in anything, this movie should put that thought to rest.

  2. You should ask Ken Talor how many times he’s paid for “Choclate Ice Cream”

  3. Canadians really don’t give a ffleck about this piece of
    American BS.

  4. I actually saw the movie at TIFF and I don’t know how many articles can be written on the movie by people who haven’t seen the movie. The movie is very complimentary towards the Canadian government and Mr and Mrs Ken Taylor and the role they played. Even Ken Taylor hasn’t seen the movie. He is only relaying what was told to him about the movie from a friend, who I am guessing is Ralph Lean, the source of the Toronto Star article.

    In no way was the postscript imply that he was given too much credit for his actions. I don’t know anyone who saw the movie that actually inferred this. I actually thought the movie was very pro-Canada.
    Martin Knelman the author of the Toronto Star article has admitted that he has not seen the movie, I question as to whether the author of this article has seen it as well.

  5. Hollywood corrupting history to make the US out as heroes, clasping pearls now. U571, The Great Escape, every film by Cecil B DeMilne etc. There’s so many of them that the US public has no idea what the US have really done in the past.
    And given that the nearest thing most US citizens get to actual history is a movie that is sad.

  6. I’m a Canadian, and I always pronounce the second “t” in Toronto.

    • OBVIOUSLY SHE’S A SPY! GET HER!!!!

    • I’m a Canadian, I live in Toronto and I always say Torono

      • Trono!

    • I am Canadian ( not by birth) but I don’t pronounce the second “t” and I never heard anybody else doing it!

  7. welcome to history 101! ” I haven’t read much about the event in Teheran, but i saw the movie!”

  8. Has no one ever seen a movie “based on” a book and, after seeing it and reading the book, asked him or herself “Huh? The movie is related to the book? How?” That’s what this is. A movie “based on” reality. It was never meant to be a true representation of what happened because Americans would be bored. Americans need American heroes. The producers need American dollars to pay for the film. Ergo: enter Tony Mendez, certified American Hero to save the day and to put the bucks in the box office. No brainer. Hey, 39% of American college students think Canada is a town in Ohio (that’s Canton, kids). Don’t be so sensitive. It’s not their fault that they have been taught that there are only two places in the world, the USA and the Ocean.

    Note to Ken Taylor: With respect to a true Canadian hero, the embassy in Tehran should have been closed as soon as that lunatic Ahmadinejad took over. The man is certifiable, as are his nutcase religious fanatic bosses. It isn’t about “(anticipating) something going wrong”. It’s about Canadian lives. Israel will be taking action to stop the Iranian psychopath brigade from getting nuclear weapons in the coming months, and the fewer Canadians we have there, the better. Zero would be a good start.

  9. John Goodman says “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” not Arkin. There was a comedy a few years ago which already used this story for a plot, but I can’t remember the title or any of the actors, so I can’t find it, sorry.

  10. As someone who’s seen this movie, I have to agree with the last poster. This film is very complimentary to Canadians. I dont see any problem here. Every ‘based on a true story’ is always just ‘based’ on it.

  11. Canada is a great country and there is no need for the inferiority complex reflected in this article and the comments below. The movie reflects Amb. Taylor’s courage, wisdom and heroism without hesitation. And of course the CIA and Mendez played an important role too, it was a joint operation. Relax and enjoy, it’s a great movie regardless of how literally it sticks to the historical details.

  12. I am an American who saw the movie today. My wife and I were on the edge of our seats and enjoyed it tremendously. However, I was suspicious of more than a few scenes including chasing the plane down the runway just before takeoff. That said, I was intrigued to find out the real story and came across this article. I now know our Canadian friends played a much more significant role. Thanks to all of you north of the border! Funny how Hollywood works isn’t it? One can be entertained and prompted to seek the truth all at the same time.

  13. I was flying back to Canada from Boston that day and you should have seen the beers that were given to me as a Canadian the day after Canada’s role in the rescue. Affleck get a life

  14. why don’t you all (who are bashing the film) find something else to complain about. it did not say “THIS IS A TRUE STORY”. it is BASED on one, just like many other Hollywood films. it is entertainment, and obviously not everything is going to be accurate. bottom line – the movie was very good, and successfull. Ben Affleck is extremely talanted. don’t try to tarnish that with your “canada was the real hero” bullsh*t..they showed that without Canada, none of that would have been possible, and oh yea, it is also an AMERICAN movie. so, to all you nay-sayers here, if you don’t like the movie, don’t watch it, and certainly don’t come on here to piss and moan about it because you have nothing else exciting going on in your lives. i never respond to these things after reading an article, but seeing what some of you said, i couldn’t help it. ARGO is a MOVIE. and a good one at that. cheerio!

  15. As a Canadian, I feel like we always have a bit of inferiority complex regarding our portrayal in world affairs. This was an American film, made by Americans and funded by Americans. Of course they’re going to magnify their roles. It doesn’t mean the film is always going to be accurate. If Canadians were involved in the production, then it would’ve taken a slant towards congratulating ourselves.

    I loved the movie and thought it was quite complimentary to us. Furthermore, for Canada to take credit for the action definitely affected our diplomatic standing not just in Iran but the Middle East in general, and the Canadian ambassador and his wife are well represented by the events. Why clutch at straws? Enjoy the movie for what it is, it doesn’t have to be absolute, undiluted fiction to be good.

  16. Ben Affleck sucks. We all knew that. His claim to fame is being friends with Matt Damon. It’s a shame. This movie could have given so much to Ken Taylor and Canada, and instead it seeks to insult the man and his great legacy. He’s not a Canadian hero, he’s a hero to both countries. He should be portrayed as such.

  17. What’s all this about having an “inferiority complex” if you point out the film is historically innacurate? Ambassador Taylor is still very much alive and the fact that he wasn’t consulted in any way during filmmaking, and wasn’t even invited to the Toronto premier, is very bad form on the filmmakers’ part. It’s insulting. At least Mr. Affleck had the decency to call him (belatedly) when Taylor expressed his concerns, invited him to a screening in L.A., and offered to change the film’s original postscript which seemed to denigrate Taylor’s role. That was generous of him; he helped to make amends and he’s spoken favourably of the Canadian role in the affair in interviews since, though it would have nice if he had reached out well before then. Good for him. What I can’t stand are the spineless people on here who won’t speak up for Canada’s role or Taylor’s heroism, using lame excuses like maketing needs or “it’s just a movie.” A misrepresentation’s a misrepresentation, and when living people are involved there is nothing to be ashamed of in pointing them out, no matter how entertaining that misrepresentation may be. You don’t even have to be viruently opposed to the film to point out it’s innaccurate – especially where your own country is concerned – either. It’s obvious to me where the inferiority complex *really* lies.

  18. For a country that has a hard time finding heroes in its own history??
    what on earth is this supposed to mean?

  19. Ken Taylor sounds like a great big crybaby. No wonder people think Canadians are a bunch of wusses. If anything, the film enhances Canada’s reputation. Taylor should write his own book if he needs attention so badly.

  20. Hollywood: Here is the clue to success. Just get along with the US, Israeil, and corporation backed media to tell nonsense, distort the truth, and prepare the ground for warmongers and you get the prize!!!! Shame on you!

  21. I’m an American who loved this movie, knew it couldn’t possibly have been totally historically accurate (the cop cars chasing the plane was a bit OTT), and wasn’t disappointed but rather was pleased to learn the full story. I thought the film was very complimentary to Canadians, all of whom were portrayed as being brave and behaving honorably. Yes, it’s a pity that the true extent of the Taylors’ and the Sheardowns’ actions weren’t acknowledged in the movie (and that Mr. Sheardown wasn’t mentioned at all), but then what would all the magazines gripe about if the film had gotten it all correct?

    Incidentally, while I was 21 at the time of the Iran hostage crisis and would normally be up on the news, I had just moved to Japan as a missionary and never heard of this whole part of the story, the six Americans who hid in the Canadian embassy (I had no access to TV or newspapers). I’m still stunned that I never heard a word about this story before seeing Argo, but like I said, I was otherwise occupied at the time. All I remembered about the hostage crisis was an aborted rescue attempt and something about Ross Perot getting his people out. So I’m very happy to learn about this wonderful true story.

    I wholeheartedly salute Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sheardown and their families and all the other Canadian diplomatic personnel and government staff who made the safe return home of these six Americans possible. I love Canada! Always have.

  22. Ah, butthurt thin-skinned Canadians. Mixed in with cartoonish knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Always good for a laugh.

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