As Oscars near, Canada bristles anew over 'Argo'

Clockwise from back left, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez; Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, Page Leong as Pat Taylor, Tate Donovan as Bob Anders, and Kerry Bisché as Kathy Stafford in a scene from "Argo."
Clockwise from back left, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez; Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, Page Leong as Pat Taylor, Tate Donovan as Bob Anders, and Kerry Bisché as Kathy Stafford in a scene from "Argo." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ottawa, Ontario - The Iranians are not the only ones who feel slighted by the movie "Argo," which recounts the hostage crisis of 1979. Some Canadians are grousing about the film as well.

"In the movie, Canada and Ottawa didn't exist," said Kenneth D. Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador to Iran at the time and assisted six Americans who escaped from the U.S. Embassy as it was overrun by militants to flee the country.

"It's a great film, it's great," Taylor said. "But at the same time, it was a Canadian story that's been, all of a sudden, totally taken over by the Americans. Totally."

In Iran, the film has been condemned as an example of "Hollywoodism," the supposed hidden agenda behind major American movies. The critique in Canada, from Taylor and others, is more subtle. After the premiere of "Argo" at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Brian D. Johnson, the film critic at Maclean's, a widely circulated Canadian weekly magazine, wrote that the movie "rewrites history at Canada's expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga's heroic saviors while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge."

After learning that Taylor had not been invited to the festival premiere of "Argo," a Toronto Star headline read "How Canadian hero Ken Taylor was snubbed by Argo," with a story noting that the diplomat's friends were "shocked and upset by the way he was portrayed."

Despite efforts by Ben Affleck, the director and star of "Argo," to assuage Taylor and Canadians in general, the controversy in Canada has been revived by the film's Academy Award nominations, including best picture, as well as the release of the DVD last week. The Oscars are tonight.

"Canadians should rightly take pride in what they did for the six houseguests," Affleck wrote in an email Thursday. "The diplomats were heroic. That's indisputable. But that part of the story had already been told. When you're a filmmaker making a film based on a historical event, it's your job to find a new way into a story."

He added, "To be honest, I was surprised to hear that Ken still has issues about the film as the last time we had contact was a few weeks ago when Ken asked me to narrate a documentary about the Iran hostage crisis that he is prominently featured in."

In the film, Affleck played Antonio J. Mendez, a CIA officer who concocted a plan to get the Americans out. He transformed the U.S. Embassy employees and diplomats into a Canadian film crew that was in Iran to scout locations for a science fiction film called "Argo." There was a fake film production company in Hollywood, a dubious script, and passports and other documents supplied by Canada via a special Cabinet order.

"There would be a very compelling film that is primarily about the heroism of Ambassador Taylor before Tony Mendez even hears about the crisis - and, in fact, that film already exists (1981's "Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper' - starring Gordon Pinsent)," Affleck wrote. "We weren't interested in remaking that film."

In his film, Affleck takes liberties, big and small. In an interview from New York, where he has lived for years, Taylor said one of his main concerns was that "Argo" gave the false impression that getting the Americans out had been an operation run entirely by the CIA.

"I don't want to be hard on Tony Mendez," Taylor said. "I want to give him all the credit I can. But at the same time I'm a Canadian, and enough is enough."

After the negative publicity over the Toronto premiere, Affleck flew Taylor and his wife to a special screening in Los Angeles and interviewed Taylor for material on the DVD. Affleck also agreed to insert a postscript written by Taylor that emphasized how the rescue was a partnership of the two nations.

Affleck also featured Taylor at the U.S. premiere of the film in Washington.

In promotional material included with the DVD, Affleck and others describe how the film went to great lengths with visual historical details. For example, a scene filmed in the lobby of the CIA's headquarters was digitally altered to include only the number of stars representing officers who had been killed on missions that existed at the time of the hostage crisis.

Robert Wright, the author of "Our Man in Tehran," a book about the rescue first published in 2010, said the filmmakers' attention to that sort of detail was a contrast to their use of historical facts.

"There's impeccable attention to detail, yet there - it's amazing that they can go to so much trouble to get the cigarette packs exactly as they were in 1979 - yet there seems to have been no interest in getting the history right," said Wright, who is a professor of history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

Still, he took it all in stride.

"Quibbling over its historical inaccuracies does, to some extent, do a great disservice to Hollywood movies," he said.

If you watch

WHAT: The 85th Annual Academy Awards
WHEN: Tonight at 7
WHERE: ABC

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