Canadian vs. US Political Film

Working on the chapter of Public Representations about Canadian political narratives, I’ve now come to narratives about the Canadian aspect of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. For younger readers, the essence of the story is that when the Revolutionary Guard stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage, six escaped, were sheltered by the Canadian ambassador at his residence, and ultimately safely left Iran travelling under false identities on Canadian passports. The “Canadian caper,” as it was called, was a source of pride in Canada and a boost to American morale during a dark time. There are three moving-image narratives about these events – the 1981 Canadian television docudrama Escape from Iran: the Canadian Caper, the 2012 American movie Argo, and the 2013 Canadian documentary Our Man in Tehran – and they epitomize the differences between Canadian and US political narratives.

The heroic protagonist of Escape from Iran is the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. Taylor, along with his Immigration Officer John Sheardown, acted out of humanitarian values to shelter six American diplomats, but he was quick to get political approval. Taylor epitomizes grace under pressure, maintaining morale among his staff and keeping up the spirits of the ”houseguests”, while constantly communicating with Foreign Affairs in Ottawa about how to get them out. The situation was dire, because if they were discovered by the Iranians they and the Canadian diplomats would be arrested or worse. Taylor was portrayed by the distinguished Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent, then graying and 50. Taylor was actually 46 at the time and footage from the time shows that he looked younger than Pinsent. The movie thus presents a public servant, in effect a middle manager, as hero.

The movie builds suspense in a number of ways. The media in Canada and the US had found out about the six diplomats, and the Canadian and US governments would soon be unable to suppress the story. Various Iranians were suspecting that houseguests who never ventured outside were something else. Finally, when the houseguests travelling under false identities are questioned by Iranian officials at Mehrabad Airport, their cover stories might collapse.

The CIA had a role in the exfiltration, as they called it, of the six Americans, but wanted the story kept secret in 1981, and indeed no mention of it was made in Escape from Iran. After the story was declassified twenty years later, Argo told it primarily from the CIA’s point of view. Argo’s heroic protagonist was CIA agent Tony Mendez, portrayed by the well-known American actor Ben Affleck, then a young-looking 40.

If Ken Taylor is the heroic middle-manager protagonist, Mendez is the heroic CIA agent protagonist, and there is a difference. Mendez is, as much as possible in the conventions of a procedural, an action hero. He is the CIA’s go-to exfiltration guy. He comes up with the idea of using a fake Hollywood movie as a cover story to bring the diplomats out of Iran. He goes to Hollywood to find a producer for the fake movie Argo and he goes to Iran to bring out the diplomats. He also practices spycraft, forging Iranian visas in the Canadian passports and communicating with Washington with a phone hidden in a radio (circa 1970s spy tech).

The movie takes several huge liberties with the historical record in the interest of increasing suspense. The American diplomats turned Canadian production crew, under intense questioning by Revolutionary Guards at Mehrabad, explain the movie and facilitate a confirmatory call to Hollywood – didn’t happen. The Guards, realizing a few minutes later they have been tricked, send patrol cars to chase the plane taking the diplomats out – also didn’t happen. Mendez, while in Iran, receives a call from his boss cancelling his mission because the White House has decided that they will be exfiltrated in a few months as part of a military operation. Mendez thinks about the situation overnight and decides to ignore the order, calling his boss to announce that he is nonetheless taking the houseguests out, and then slams down the receiver. He is thus forcing the White House to reverse itself, which it soon does. This, too, didn’t happen. There is a big difference between what Taylor did – in an uncertain situation, acting and then seeking authorization – and what the fictional Mendez did – defying an order to force his superiors to reverse themselves.

The 2015 Canadian documentary Our Man in Tehran is, in every sense of the term, a worthwhile Canadian initiative. Yes it was, in part, made to correct Argo’s focus on Mendez’s heroism while downplaying Taylor’s, and also to restate the historical record that Argo so spectacularly distorted. But it was also made to give the participants in those events a last opportunity to tell their stories. John Sheardown died a year before the film was made, so his wife told his story, and both Ken Taylor and Canadian Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald were ailing and died two years after. The participants were all complimentary towards one another.  For me, the most touching part of the movie was to hear CIA agent William Daugherty, who had been captured at the Embassy, held in solitary confinement and tortured, complimenting Ken Taylor’s heroism. In this instance, it took one to know one.

It should now become clear why these movies illustrate the difference between Canadian and American approaches to moving-image political narrative.

First, scale and scope. Though I could not find the numbers online, it is clear from watching them that both Escape from Iran and Our Man in Tehran are low budget productions and typically Canadian in format – made-for television or documentary. Argo was a big budget ($44 million US at the time, equivalent to $50 million now) feature film.

Second, dramatic license. Escape from Iran stayed close to the facts as known at the time. Our Man in Tehran used interviews with participants in the events as well as background interviews with journalists to (re)establish the facts. In Argo, to quote its own disclaimer in the credits, “some scenes were fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” It was clearly successful at this, drawing big audiences that enjoyed the suspenseful story. It grossed $232 million US worldwide, a handsome return on the original investment. It also won the Academy Awards for best picture and best adapted screenplay as well as the American Film Institute award for best picture in 2013.

Third, and finally, attitude towards authority. Ken Taylor and John Sheardown take initiative in an unprecedented situation based on their interpretation of humanitarian (and Canadian) values, but quickly seek political approval. The fictional Antonio Mendez makes his own assessment of the situation on the ground, defies authority, and forces his superiors to go along. And he is forgiven, and indeed recognized, because he is successful.

We Canadians are who we are, our American neighbours are who they are, and our films reflect our differences.

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