Friday, 22 February 2013

Former Canadian Ambassador Renews Criticism of ‘Argo’

The Iranians are not the only ones who feel slighted by the movie “Argo,” which recounts the hostage crisis of 1979. Some Canadians are grousing about the film as well.

“In the movie, Canada and Ottawa didn’t exist,” said Kenneth D. Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador to Iran at the time and helped six Americans who escaped from the American Embassy as it was overrun by militants to flee the country.
“It’s a great film, it’s great. But at the same time it was a Canadian story that’s been, all of sudden, totally taken over by the Americans. Totally.”

In Iran, the film has been condemned as an example of “Hollywoodism,” the supposed hidden agenda behind major American movies. The critique in Canada, from Mr. Taylor and others, is more subtle. After the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Brian D. Johnson, the film critic at Maclean’s, a widely circulated weekly Canadian magazine, wrote that the movie “rewrites history at Canada’s expense, making Hollywood and the C.I.A. the saga’s heroic savior while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge.”

After learning that Mr. Taylor had not been invited to the film festival premiere of “Argo,” The Toronto Star prominently featured a story under the headline: “How Canadian hero Ken Taylor was snubbed by ‘Argo’,” which noted the diplomat’s friends were “shocked and upset by the way he was portrayed.”

Despite months of efforts by Ben Affleck, the film’s director and star, to assuage Mr. Taylor and Canadians in general, the controversy in Canada has been revived by the film’s Academy Award nominations, including best picture, as well the release of the DVD version of the film this week.

“Canadians should rightly take pride in what they did for the six houseguests,” Mr. Affleck wrote in a lengthy e-mail on Thursday. “The diplomats were heroic. That’s indisputable. But that part of the story had already been told. When you’re a filmmaker making a film based on a historical event, it’s your job to find a new way into a story.”

He added, almost wearily: “To be honest, I was surprised to hear that Ken still has issues about the film as the last time we had contact was a few weeks ago when Ken asked me to narrate a documentary about the Iran hostage crisis that he is prominently featured in.”

In the film, Mr. Affleck played Tony Mendez, a C.I.A. operative who concocted a scheme to get the Americans out. He transformed the American Embassy employees and diplomats into a Canadian film crew who were in Iran to scout locations for a science-fiction film to be known as “Argo.”

“There would be a very compelling film that is primarily about the heroism of ambassador Taylor before Tony Mendez even hears about the crisis — and, in fact, that film already exists (1981’s ‘Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper’ — starring Gordon Pinsent),” Mr. Affleck wrote. “We weren’t interested in remaking that film.”

In the film, Mr. Affleck takes several liberties with history, big and small. In an interview from New York, where he has lived for years, Mr. Taylor said one of his main concerns is that the movie gives the false impression that that extrication of the Americans was an operation run entirely by the C.I.A. in which he and other Canadian diplomats simply followed orders.“I don’t want to be hard on Tony Mendez,” Mr. Taylor said. “I want to give him all the credit I can. But at the same time I’m a Canadian and enough is enough.”

As well, Mr. Taylor said he was disturbed by the film’s suggestion that the C.I.A., for secrecy reasons, allowed him and Canada initially to take all of the credit for the successful flight of the six Americans.

Following the publicity surrounding the Toronto premiere, Mr. Affleck flew Mr. Taylor and his wife to the special screening in Los Angeles and interviewed Mr. Taylor for material that was included with the DVD. To mitigate Mr. Taylor’s concern that viewers might think that he unfairly took credit for actions that were the C.I.A.’s, Mr. Affleck agreed to insert a postscript written by Mr. Taylor which emphasizes how the rescue was a partnership of the two nations.

Mr. Affleck also prominently featured Mr. Taylor at the film’s Washington premiere and placed a courtesy call to John Sheardown, a Canadian diplomat who sheltered four of the six Americans in his home but who is not mentioned in the film. Mr. Sheardown died recently.

In promotional material included with the DVD, Mr. Affleck and others describe how the film took great lengths with visual historical details. For example, a scene filmed in the lobby of the C.I.A.’s headquarters was digitally altered to only include the number of stars representing officers who had been killed on missions that existed at the time of the Iran crisis.

Robert Wright, the author of “Our Man In Tehran,” a book about the rescue first published in 2010 said the filmmakers’ attention to that sort of detail was a contrast to their use of historical facts.

But unlike some Canadians, Mr. Wright said that the film’s liberties with the historical record, no matter how big, can be excused.

“This story is at risk of being lost and that’s why ‘Argo’ is important,” he said. “Quibbling over its historical inaccuracies does, to some extent, do a great disservice to Hollywood movies.”

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