Saturday, 3 August 2013

"The Canadian Caper" versus "Argo"

Ken Taylor, Canadian ambassador to Iran
at the time of the US embassy hostage taking
in 1979, received the Order of Canada from
Governor General Ed Schreyer for his efforts.
“Don’t get you history from the movies.”

That’s what renowned film critic Leonard Maltin said when asked about the controversy surrounding the movie “Argo” and accusations it played down the role of Canadians and even disrespected Canada in its role in the rescue of Americans from Iran in 1979-1980.

Seen this movie before
When I first heard about “Argo”, I thought it was important this story be told. Although my first thought was: “The movie has already been made.” That’s right, a year or so after the hostages were rescued, CTV aired a movie called “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper”. 

Gordon Pinsent played Ken Taylor, former
Canadian ambassador to Iran, in the 1980 TV movie,
"Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper"
It starred Gordon Pinsent, the most legendary of Canadian actors, as Ambassador Ken Taylor who was the real hero of the piece. It included the role of the Sheardowns, two other heavily involved Canadians in the event, with John played by another venerable Canadian actor, Chris Wiggins. These people hid for months six Americans who had fled from the attack, and subsequent hostage taking, at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. It was a solid TV movie.

A matter of perspective
So many years later, Ben Affleck got hold of the story, but it was told from a different angle, that of CIA agent Tony Mendez. Once the whole affair was de-classified by the United States, he wrote a book on his role in it. Affleck used that, and other source material to tell “Argo” from the point of view of Tony Mendez.

It is hard to be critical of a filmmaker, making a drama, for following his source material, and embellishing it. After all, it is a movie. We saw it in the theatre, on a DVD, Netflix, or some other entertainment medium, not on PBS , CBC Newsworld, or 60 Minutes. It was not a documentary.

Still distasteful to Canadians
Having said that, it was distasteful in the way Affleck portrayed Ken Taylor as a background player who even mistook the CIA for the FBI. Why? Because at that time Ken Taylor was actually working with the CIA. So that was unfair of Affleck. So was the implication at the end that the CIA was letting Canada have the credit. In fact, Taylor, the Sheardowns and others had risked their lives for months hiding the escaped Americans.

Rightful place in history
In looking back though, Taylor received more than 100 honours at the time. He was revered as a hero, as he should be, at the time. After "Argo" came out, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter came out and reaffirmed the role played by Taylor and Canada in the whole affair. No Hollywood movie will diminish that.

The fact is, movies always get history wrong, making Leonard Maltin’s comment more relevant than ever. In the same year “Argo” came out, so did “Lincoln”, and guess what? It too was accused of being historically inaccurate. The Americans even get wrong and/or embellish their own stories.

Telling our stories
The only thing we can hope for is this. A lot of school teachers use movies to teach history. It would be galling for Canadian teachers to do two things. One is to never tell the heroic story of Ken Taylor and the Canadians in Iran. The other is to tell that story by showing students “Argo”, when a much better movie is available. In fact, social classes in my own school back in Coaldale watched parts of “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper” back in the 1980s. We have to tell our own stories, but we have to tell them to each other before we worry about what other people think.

No comments:

Post a Comment