After learning that Taylor had not been invited to the film festival premiere of “Argo," The Toronto Star prominently featured a story under the headline “How Canadian hero Ken Taylor was ssnubbed by Argo," which noted that the diplomat’s friends were “shocked and upset by the way he was portrayed."
Despite months of 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 recent release of the DVD version.
“Canadians should rightly take pride in what they did for the six houseguests," Affleck wrote in a lengthy 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 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 to be known as “Argo." The tale was supported by, among other things, establishing a fake film production company in Hollywood, purchasing a dubious script, and obtaining passports and other documents supplied by Canada through 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 several liberties with history, big and small (as has been noted ad nauseam, and he’s not the only Oscar-nominated director to have done so lately). Taylor, in an interview from New York, where he has lived for years, said one of his main concerns was that “Argo" gave the false impression that the extrication of the Americans had been an operation run entirely by the CIA in which he and other Canadian diplomats simply followed orders.
“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."
Taylor got some help from former President Jimmy Carter, who appeared on CNN on Thursday night saying that “90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian," but the film “gives almost full credit to the American CIA."
Taylor said he was disturbed by the film’s suggestion that the CIA had done all of the work but, for secrecy reasons, allowed him and Canada initially to take all of the credit for the successful flight of the six Americans.
More of the story, on DVD
After the negative publicity was raised over the Toronto premiere, Affleck flew Taylor and his wife to a special screening in Los Angeles and interviewed Taylor for material that was included with the DVD. To mitigate Taylor’s concern that viewers might think that he unfairly took credit for actions that were the CIA’s, Affleck agreed to insert a postscript written by Taylor that emphasized how the rescue was a partnership of the two nations.
Affleck also prominently featured Taylor at the U.S. premiere of the film in Washington and placed a courtesy call to John Sheardown, a Canadian diplomat who sheltered four of the six Americans in his home in Tehran but who is not mentioned in the film. Sheardown died recently.
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.
Affleck’s thriller is widely expected to win the best-picture trophy at tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony. Two other high-profile best-picture nominees this year, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty" and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln," have also been criticized for their portrayal of some factual issues.
For his part, Taylor called “Argo" a good movie and said he’s not rooting against it. But he maintained it is far from accurate.
“He’s a good director. It’s got momentum. There’s nothing much right from Day One I could do about the movie. I changed a line at the end because the caption at the end was disgraceful. It’s like Tiananmen Square, you are sitting in front of a big tank," he said.