There was no life-or-death interrogation at the departure gate. No anti-authority bravery by a lone-wolf CIA agent. And Canadian wannabe heroes didn’t try to grab a spotlight that properly belonged to the U.S. intelligence service.
In the wake of Sunday night’s win by Ben Affleck’s Argo for best-picture Oscar in a ceremony viewed by more than 39 million Americans, the man who served as Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis says he has accepted Hollywood’s penchant for poetic licence, especially now that key figures are vouching for the importance of the Canadian contribution to the rescue mission.
Still, Ken Taylor would like to set the historical record straight about what happened after the U.S. embassy was overrun by militants on Nov. 4, 1979, and six Americans found safe haven in a pair of official Canadian residences.
Argo says: Tony Mendez was a CIA agent who single-handedly dreamed up the cockamamie rescue scenario that would see him fly into Tehran, prep the six Americans with the cover story that they were actually a Canadian film crew in the country to scout locations for a science-fiction film, and then thread the needle by spiriting them out from under the watchful eye of the trigger-happy Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Taylor says: While the CIA did finally settle on the Hollywood cover idea, Taylor intended for the six Americans to leave on their own as part of a wave of Canadians departing in the normal course of international travel. “I was cutting back the staff,” he recalls. “[The Americans] would just be Canadians going through, some on business, some going back after temporarily serving at the embassy.” Sometime before the date of departure, the CIA decided it wanted to send in two agents to travel with the escapees. “Tony and one other officer came in, then went out. I think they were at the airport and monitored their [departure]. Because there was no interrogation at the airport.”
Argo says: Travel documents were skillfully, single-handedly forged and doctored by Tony Mendez.
Taylor says: “The documentation was totally prepared in Ottawa.” That included passports, business cards, credit cards and other ephemera (receipts from restaurants in Toronto, Montreal etc.) that would help establish the legitimacy of the six Americans as a Canadian film crew. After one Farsi-speaking member of Taylor’s staff discovered an error in the documents, more passports were issued by Ottawa and couriered via diplomatic pouch to Tehran.
Argo says: Filmmakers built up the tension by having (the fictional) Ken Taylor inform Tony Mendez that Ottawa had given orders for the embassy to be closed, which would have left the house guests with nowhere to go.
Taylor says: “It’s inconceivable that Canada would have closed the embassy while U.S. diplomats were still there. It wouldn’t even have occurred to us.”
On Monday, Taylor said he was mollified by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter telling CNN’s Piers Morgan last week that the film greatly exaggerated the CIA’s role and underplayed the Canadians’ contributions. “When a U.S. citizen makes that case, it really has an authenticity to it, and a disinterest,” said Taylor. “He’s just clarifying those first three months.”
Still, at least one participant in Argo remains aggrieved: After the ceremony, the Iranian wire service Mehr News suggested first lady Michelle Obama awarding Argo the best-picture Oscar proved there was a conspiracy between the White House and Hollywood to make Iran look bad. “As further proof of this purported conspiracy,” reported Variety, “Mehr claimed that most movie critics preferred Lincoln.”