Inaccuracies in Argo showcase dangers in diplomacy

BY GRACE MEREDITH ’16
Contributing Writer

Every year, magazine devotees, film trivia addicts, and the average American film attendee unite and wait patiently for the annual Oscars. Sure enough, a week ago, the glamorous Hollywood actors and executives gathered for the 85th Academy Awards.

And, although faced with many contenders, the dramatic but historical film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, swept many awards, including Best Picture. The film is almost universally critically acclaimed. Loosely based on a true story, Argo details the account of CIA operative Tony Mendez’s (played by Ben Affleck) role in the Iranian hostage situation 1979 through 1980. The movie begins with the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran after the coup d’état and exposition of the Iranian Shah, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlav.

The film opens with the depiction of extreme outrage in Iran over the U.S. sheltering of the Shah, which resulted in violent protesting outside the U.S. embassy. On Nov. 4, 1979, enraged Iranians stormed the embassy, taking 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Six of those hostages escaped and were granted sanctuary in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Tony Mendez, with the help of the CIA, devised an elaborate plan to rescue the hostages by pretending to be a Canadian movie crew, who were location scouting for a science fiction movie called “Argo.”

The movie was fictional, but the story is true. On Jan. 27, 1980, the six hostages boarded a flight to Zurich, Switzerland, before safely returning to America. Because of the highly classified nature of the mission, confidentiality agreements were signed to keep their involvement restricted. Thus, the Canadian government became American heroes, with “Thank You Canada” parades all over the country. The covert operation is now known as the “Canadian Caper,” as the CIA declassified the material in 1997, and Tony Mendez was given public honor for his work in rescuing the hostages.

Although mostly historically accurate, Argo has stirred some controversy, particularly among British, Canadian, and Kiwi viewers. Some critics say that the film glorified the role of the CIA and downplayed the role of Canada. At the end of the film, the narration implied that Ambassador Taylor, who took in the hostages with great personal risk, was only given credit to cover up the role of the CIA. Thus, many found this insinuated Taylor did not deserve the accolades he received. The postscript also read, “The story stands as an enduring model for successful cooperation between partners.”

When interviewed, Ambassador Taylor revealed that, in reality, Canada was the main actor in the operation and the CIA was more of a junior partner. The film portrays American agent Tony Mendez working alone, but, in reality, he had a Canadian movie agent as a partner as well: Dennis Packer. Similarly, in the film, the Americans were said to have been turned away by the British and New Zealand embassies. Actually, the New Zealand Embassy proved very helpful, and a Kiwi driver actually drove the Americans to the airport. However, it is the British who are truly outraged by Argo.

The British had initially hosted the hostages, but they were moved the private residence of the Canadian ambassador because the British Embassy was considered too unstable a location. British diplomats also assisted other American hostages beyond the six. Sir John Graham, the then-British ambassador to Iran, has said, “My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage. I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the filmmakers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979.”

The dangers of twisting a story like the “Canadian Caper” are actually quite numerous. By not giving countries, especially America’s allies, credit for their efforts assisting Americans, we are encouraging nationalism and taking undue credit. To literally make up a fact, like New Zealand and the Brits not wanting to help Americans, we are perpetuating into popular culture anti-British/Kiwi mythology. It is incredibly disrespectful to both of these nations.

In a film that is supposed to be advocating for the power of diplomacy, it is almost absurd that Hollywood would not only minimize the role of the Canadian ambassador, but also blatantly lie about the character of our allies. Although a wonderful film, the inclusion of these mistruths in Argo was completely unnecessary. In the future, Hollywood must seriously understand the power of the media to perpetuate impressionistic and untrue ideas on the general populace. Hollywood acts as an ambassador to the international community — by disregarding fact, we are in danger of risking our credibility as a nation.

Questions? Email Grace at gmeredit@fandm.edu.

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