Ben Affleck’s Argo sees America ride to the rescue, playing down central Canadian role in saving U.S. diplomats

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

As Canadians, we're used to being largely invisible as a nation in Hollywood's world. If we're portrayed at all it's usually as cardboard Mounties or some other kind of well-meaning bumbler.

But some people are riled up by the way a new Ben Affleck movie is downplaying Canada's role in hiding and then spiriting American diplomats out of Iran in 1980, a few weeks after militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 63 staff members hostage.

Affleck stars in and directs Argo, which chronicles a clandestine scheme to smuggle out the six Americans disguised as Canadians involved in a bogus film production.

It became known as The Canadian Caper and is embraced as a modern act of heroism by members of the Canadian embassy, led by then-ambassador Ken Taylor. The career diplomat was lionized in books and on film for keeping the fugitive Americans out of the hands of Iranian revolutionaries and getting them out of the country.

But this new version of the story plays down the Canadian role and puts a CIA operative named Tony Mendez at the centre of the drama.

Taylor, played by Canadian actor Victor Garber, was not consulted during the production and not invited to the gala Canadian premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

[Related: Affleck struck that 'Argo' debuting at TIFF as Canada cuts ties with Iran]

Taylor, now retired and living in New York City, was not amused.

"So much of the movie is total fiction," Taylor told Macleans. "My concern is that we're portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.

"My impression is that it's very entertaining. I'm not feeling offended. It's their movie. But it totally distorts the relationship between Canada and the U.S. with respect to the episode. I just think they didn't want to be bothered with the facts. It's a good story, which they stole."

The movie, based largely on a book written by Mendez, suggests Canada's role was highlighted initially to cover up the CIA's central role in the rescue to avoid a backlash against the Americans still being held hostage at the time. They weren't released until early 1981.

A postscript at the end of the movie ironically points out Taylor received 112 citations for the rescue.

But since Taylor's comments last week, Affleck and Argo producers have being doing damage control, and Toronto Star columnist Martin Knelman at least thinks the story now has a happy ending.

Affleck told the Star he called Taylor after learning via the media that he'd been offended.

"If you have issues, I'll address them," Affleck said he told Taylor.

One result was the postscript was changed to say: "The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments."

Affleck said he and Taylor have become fast friends since he flew to New York to speak with him.

"I love Ken," he said, adding Taylor and his wife Pat will attend a special screening in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 10. "I already had so much respect for him before we met. He is a class act."

Argo is, by all accounts, a kick-ass thriller and carries the usual Hollywood caveat for taking liberties, that it's "based on a true story." But Taylor, though still the diplomat, made it plain he was concerned with some of the fictionalized elements.

"In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner," he told the Star.

Taylor said several details were pure fiction, including a supposed problem getting plane tickets for the faux Canadians, which amps up the film's climax, and a threat by Taylor to close down the Canadian embassy, marooning his American guests.

"But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Ben was very gracious and we got along really well. There are a few points I want to address. Now Ben and I both feel free to talk about them."