Argo: Iran hostage crisis fiddles with the facts

David Beddard – W5 Staff Feb 22, 2013

Ben Affleck’s movie, “Argo,” claims to be a “true story” and while it’s widely regarded as one of the best pictures of the year, garnering multiple nominations and awards, the truth it portrays contains some glaring omissions. The backdrop of the tale is the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Islamic militants who captured 52 American diplomatic personnel and held them hostage for 444 days. However, the core story of “Argo” focuses on the six American diplomats who escaped the initial takeover and found refuge in — and eventual rescue from — the Canadian Embassy in Iran.

Lead actor and director, Affleck, who studied Middle Eastern Affairs in college, said he “knew the backstory, I knew the politics, I knew that I wasn’t going to step on any landmines in that regard.” But, at the movie’s premiere at TIFF, the landmines started exploding.

Many Canadians, including former Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, who housed two of the six escapees and who was a central coordinator in the ex-filtration of the six Americans, took issue with the film, which portrayed the Canadians as a minor player in the daring escape. “Argo” would have us believe that it was almost solely an American undertaking led by CIA agent, Tony Mendez

“Tony Mendez, as courageous and ingenious as is his character, was only there for a day and a half, said Taylor. “After three months of intensive preparation for the operation…I think my role was somewhat more than just opening and closing the front door of the embassy.” It was largely the Canadian Embassy who orchestrated the escape.

That bit of “Argo’s” oversight is well known to Les Harris, a former W5 producer who quit his job to direct not only a 1980s documentary on this tale, but a movie of the week (Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper) as well. According to Harris, “(Argo) was a fantastic film. What it was not was the story, the true story of what happened.”

Jimmy Carter, the American President at the time of the hostage crisis, echoed Harris’s viewpoint. While receiving an honorary degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Carter took issue with the film. In his acceptance speech, Carter said, “I saw the movie Argo recently. I was taken aback by its distortion of what happened. Because almost everything that was heroic or courageous or innovative was done by Canada, and not the United States.”

Historical errors

So, what really did happen in the historical sense – and what did the movie, Argo, simply invent? A warning – if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to spoil your viewing of Affleck’s version of history, skip the next few paragraphs and go directly to “Resume reading here.”

  • While Ambassador Taylor is depicted as taking in all six of the American escapees, it was John Sheardown, another Canadian Consular Official, and his wife, Zena, who took in four of them. Ambassador Taylor housed the other two.
  • The six Americans did not object to the plan of posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a movie. In fact, they favored that option over two others presented to them.
  • The group of six never ventured into the Iranian bazaar as a dress rehearsal of their fake identities. In fact, Mark Lijek, one of the Americans exfiltrated from Iran said in an with W5’s Victor Malarek, “ It would have been suicidal to go to the Bazaar at that point.”
  • The character of Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, while one of the most entertaining characters in the movie, was a composite of several people. There was a real-life producer named Lester Siegal, but he had nothing to do with this episode of Canadian and American history.
  • The confrontation with Iranian officials at the airport in Tehran never happened. Apart from a short delay in boarding the plane, neither the six American escapees, nor Tony Mendez were questioned or detained at the airport.
  • The climactic and nail-biting car chase by armed Iranians pursuing the jetliner lifting the Americans to freedom never happened. They lifted off without a hitch.

Resume reading here

Ultimately, Argo fails as an historically accurate representation of what truly occurred. When Victor Malarek caught up with Affleck on his way into the Santa Barbara Film Festival, the director defended his picture.

“It’s hard to make a movie and you wanna jam everything that’s possible in there,” said Affleck. “Particularly given, one of the really nice things about this movie was the spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood and companionhood that developed between the United States and Canada.”

That said, as entertainment Argo does succeed as a true Hollywood thriller And as far as film critic Leonard Maltin is concerned there should be no problem with that, after he has one piece of sage advice for us all “don’t get your history from the movies.”

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