Canadians weren’t the only ones who resented the falsified history of Ben Affleck’s Argo.
Even some people who participated in the film were taken aback by the way a famous Canadian rescue of six Americans was twisted into a story about CIA operatives heroically using the cover of Hollywood to save the day.
William Daugherty, one of the 52 U.S. hostages held for more than 14 months in Tehran after Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy there in November, 1979, advised the actor who played him in the Oscar best picture winner. “We talked for almost an hour. He wanted to know some things I was thinking, the sequence of events,” Daugherty recalled last week in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival. “He said the wardrobe ladies wanted to know about what [I was] wearing, what I looked like. I was able to describe my clothes, the trousers, the shirt, the beard.”
Even though Daugherty’s character ended up with only about eight seconds of screen time in Argo, he was impressed that “they took all that care to get [the wardrobe] correct.
“And then once those 4 1/2 minutes of the intro were over – then it turns into a work of fiction!”
Still, Argo gave new life to a cloak-and-dagger episode that was until then known as the Canadian Caper, ironically helping to pave the way for the production of Our Man in Tehran, a comprehensive documentary that aims to set the record straight about the hostage crisis.
By one measure, Tehran, co-directed by Larry Weinstein (Inside Hana’s Suitcase) and Drew Taylor, is about as un-Hollywood a film as you could get. Based on the book of the same name by the historian Robert Wright, the film takes its time to draw a nuanced portrait of the domestic political scene in Iran: It notes the Shah of Iran’s brutal reign, his escape into exile and the return to Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the legitimacy of Iranians’ concerns in late 1979 that the CIA might be positioning the Shah for a return to power.
Only then does the film unfold the full story of the student takeover of the U.S. embassy and the way that Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran at the time, hid the six American embassy workers for two months before arranging – with key help from then Prime Minister Joe Clark and Secretary of State for External Affairs Flora MacDonald – for their return home.
“The Iranians came out of Argo in a pretty black light,” said Ken Taylor, who was in Toronto last week for a special presentation of the film, which was also attended by Clark. “[My wife] and I were hoping that, as this developed, it would show another side to the Iranian character, that this is a complex society, and it’s not easily described in one dimension.”
“We approached the story with a certain amount of empathy,” said Drew Taylor (no relation). “For the students, and [U.S. President] Carter, and Clark – all these people.”
The film even manages to make a bit of news: Interviews with both Clark and MacDonald reveal that they brought Pierre Trudeau, who was then the Leader of the Opposition, into their confidence about the six U.S. houseguests being secretly sheltered by the Canadians. Nevertheless, Trudeau called on Clark and MacDonald in Parliament to issue a public statement of support for the U.S. “He played politics,” charges Carole Jerome, a former CBC journalist who covered the crisis, in the film.
While it recalls a moment in history from more than 30 years ago, the events in Tehran continue to reverberate today. “The seizure of the embassy changed all the rules,” observed Weinstein. “This had never been done before. Even the World War II embassies were sacred – like the American embassy in Japan. It was just never considered, because – that is America in the middle of Tehran. It was like a student experiment which went crazily awry, thanks to the Ayatollah.”
“It showed a small group of people could bring a superpower to its knees,” added Drew Taylor. “And since then, we can see a lot of instances of people trying to accomplish the same thing.”
The film also notes the terrible treatment to which some of the hostages were subjected. Daugherty recalls that his hands were tied with twine and then beaten. “That may well be the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life,” he says in the film.
Still, while that may not qualify strictly as torture, Daugherty noted last week that U.S. Forces have treated some of its prisoners much worse, including those held at Guantanamo Bay. “When the same things were done to us, the American government, the American people were all up in arms, because they called it torture.”
“When other countries do it to us, it’s torture; when we do it to other countries, it’s not torture. That’s more American hypocrisy.”
Daugherty said he is pleased to be in the film, if only because it allows him to pay tribute to Taylor and the other Canadians who helped out his fellow countrymen.
“I don’t have many many heroes,” he said. “‘Heroes’ is a way overused word. Dennis Rodman’s not a hero. Ken Taylor to me is.”
If Our Man in Tehran now stands as a companion piece to Argo, the two films were almost linked even tighter. As the critiques of Affleck’s movie got louder during the run-up to the Oscars last February, and the star went on something of a mea culpa tour, he offered to narrate Our Man in Tehran. But since Weinstein doesn’t have narration in his films, “we had no use for it,” he said. Still, a few weeks ago, he sent Affleck a link to the finished film.
But it’s unlikely he has gotten around to watching it. “It was the same day he was announced as Batman,” said Drew Taylor, chuckling. “So as soon as [the e-mail] was sent, I knew: Well, this one’s gonna be buried.”
Our Man in Tehran opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday. It premieres on Movie Central Friday night and The Movie Network on Saturday night, followed on each network by Argo.