Identifying with past experiences and pondering their significance deepens our experience of what it is to be human. History is a dialogue between the past and the present. We ask questions about the past because of things that we’re concerned with now.
– Prof. Jan Noel, U of T Magazine, Autumn 2012
Tensions in the Middle East…embassies under siege…flashback to Nov. 4, 1979. Six American consular officers evade capture in the Iran Hostage Crisis and find refuge in the Tehran residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and Chief of Immigration John Sheardown.
Ben Affleck’s Argo, opening Friday, tells the CIA/Hollywood version of the events. Argo makes for terrific entertainment but dubious history. Should we care?
October is History Month, but don’t go to the movies expecting to see a “true story.” Hollywood never lets the facts get in the way of a good yarn about a lone wolf maverick, an American hero rescuing the good guys from the bad guys, like Jason on the good ship Argo saving the Golden Fleece from the evil Dragon. Argo will be a huge hit, but it’s mostly myth. Tinseltown loves to pat itself on the back, so expect to see Alan Arkin, right, on Oscar night.
Back in 1981, Escape from Iran: the Canadian Caper, starring Gordon Pinsent as Ken Taylor, told the same story from a very different perspective. The docudrama, the first CBS TV movie filmed in Canada, stuck to the facts known at the time. The six Americans leave Iran on Canadian passports posing as grain exporters from Etobicoke. In 1997 the covert involvement of the CIA was declassified and the cover story of a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic called Argo came out.
Escape from Iran filmed in and around Toronto, which cast and crew dubbed ‘Tehranto’. (This nickname was also used by Canadian diplomats in Iran.) Producers decided there was no need to go all the way to the Middle East. The entire picture was shot here. The former Scarborough Board of Education building on Borough Drive became the American Embassy, with the Royal York Hotel ballroom as the interior. A wall was built to recreate the student assault. Kensington Market was used as a bazaar and the CNE depicted Mehrabad Airport.
“So much of the movie is total fiction,” Ken Taylor said in Maclean’s magazine. “My concern is that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.”
Affleck had the gall to come to Toronto and claim his movie says ‘Thank you, Canada’, when it all but ignores the Canadian team effort. Argo tacks on a wholly fictional cloak-and-dagger ending which distorts the entire event.
The ads tout, “IN 1979…ONLY ONE MAN…COULD BRING THEM HOME!”
The CIA’s Tony Mendez wasn’t even in Tehran except for two nights in January 1980. Taylor is sure the Canadians could have spirited their ‘houseguests’ out of Iran without any American involvement.
There are 190 actors listed in Argo, yet John Sheardown doesn’t even rate a footnote. Sheardown made contact with the six Americans and stuck his neck out by inviting them to stay in his own home. Four nervous consul employees spent 79 days in his sanctuary while two stayed at Ken Taylor’s residence. Besides providing them with food, shelter, clothes, real passports sent by our government, documents, maps and Scrabble, the Canadians scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets, even coached the six in sounding Canadian, eh (‘Toronto’ spoken like ‘piranha’).
Mendez was taken care of by the Embassy, met the Americans at the Sheardown house and convinced them to choose his ludicrous Hollywood scenario about Canadians scouting film locations in revolutionary Iran. (Hey, we would have just shot it in Scarborough!)
You won’t hear John Sheardown’s name in Argo. Born in Windsor, he served as a tail gunner in the Second World War. He broke both his legs bailing out of a crippled RCAF Halifax bomber over Britain, crawled to a pub and asked for a drink. As soon as he recovered, Sheardown was back flying missions over Germany. He’s the unsung hero of the real story, risking his life one more time.
Argo touts its authenticity and attention to period detail by showing newsreel footage and side-by-side photos of the events, plus the actors beside the real six, exact down to their moustaches. Don’t be fooled by appearances.
‘It’s going to take a miracle to get them out!’ No, what it took was Canadian passports. Enjoy the movie, but if you want to know what actually happened in January 1980 read the new book Argo by Antonio Mendez, or Our Man in Tehran (2010) by Robert Wright.
If you don’t mind a huge SPOILER ALERT, the story continues.
Tehran, January 27, 1980. Ken Taylor would never allow the six Americans to go to a bazaar. They were driven from John Sheardown’s home to the airport by an Iranian employee in a Canadian Embassy van. Tony Mendez was already at the airport. Along with a number of Canadians they all boarded a Swissair flight on a plane called “AARGAU”. There was a tense moment when the immigration official disappeared and came back with…a cup of tea.
“As long as we were Canadians, the rest of it is kind of irrelevant in terms of how things worked at the airport,” said Mark Lijek, one of the six, in Our Man In Tehran by Robert Wright.