At the beginning of “Our Man in Tehran” we’re told, “this wasn’t a movie, it was real life.”
It’s hard not to see that as a jab at Ben Affleck & Company whose film “Argo” won Academy Awards last year for taking liberties with the story of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
“Our Man in Tehran,” the account of ambassador Ken Taylor and his Canadian peers who arranged the rescue of six Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in 1980 aims to set the record straight.
There’s no mention of the Oscar winning film, just interviews with the main players, including Taylor, Minister of External Affairs Flora MacDonald, former Prime Minister Joe Clark, reporters like Joe Schlesinger, CIA agent Tony Mendez and several of the hostages mixed with archival footage.
Directors Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor set up the story, providing context about the political climate in Iran that preceded and instigated the events of the hostage taking. It’s straightforward talking head storytelling, but it’s riveting and exciting stuff.
The tale is told from the Canadian point of view and while some details overlap with Affleck’s vision of the story—they really did use the ruse of a film production called “Argo” to cover their tracks—Taylor’s role is clearly explained. Canadian actor Victor Garber played him in the feature where he mainly seen peering around corners and closing doors, but here he is given his due.
“People lose sight of what a hero really is,” says says former CIA officer and Iranian hostage William Daugherty, as a soft focus picture of Ken Taylor fills the screen. In any other movie this might be seen as a heavy-handed image but after seeing “Our man in Tehran” it’s hard to argue with the sentiment.
It’s a reclamation of the legacy of Canadian Caper, topped with a typically quaint Canadian quote from one of the key players.
“We rose to the occasion and showed us at our best,” says Joe Clark. “Not simply because it worked but because the motives were correct.”
In “Argo” director and star Ben Affleck has the job of creating edge-of-your-seat tension even though most viewers already know the ending of the story. Based on the Canadian Caper, a covert operation to free six American diplomats after the seizure of the their embassy in Tehran, the movie fleshes out the story with the addition of recently declassified details.
The action begins on November 4, 1979 as Iranian militants invade the US embassy in Tehran, taking fifty-two of the fifty-eight diplomats hostages. Six managed to escape, making their way to refuge at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). In the United States the CIA hire Tony Mendez (Ben Afleck), an “exfiltration” expert to smuggle the six out of Iran to safety. With time ticking he concocts a plan that sounds like something from a bad spy movie. Creating false identities for the six he has them pose as a film crew scouting locations for a fake sci fi flick called “Argo.” Armed with fake Canadian passports, forged documents and movie storyboards they attempt the daring escape.
From the old school warner Brothers logo that pops up before the credits to the beards, clothes and 80’s vintage footage of Canadian politician Flora MacDonald, “Argo” gets the period details right, which goes a long way to forgive the inauthentic feel of much of the espionage.
Despite being based in truth, the spy story has the kind of Hollywood feel that reduces the agents to stereotypes—the world-weary spymaster, the by-the-book boss wielding the “Clipboard of Authority” and hotheaded supervisor—and the mission to a series of set pieces involving split second timing and imminent danger.
But this isn’t “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” with that movie’s nuanced, pensive take on the intelligence racket. It’s “Argo,” a Ben Affleck directed Hollywood construct, and despite its overreliance on well-worn theatrics, a pretty good one.
Affleck and John Goodman, (as real-life make-up artist John Chambers, and part time CIA operative), impress but it is Alan Arkin as Hollywood mogul Lester Siegel who steals the show. Siegle and Chambers anchored the Argo plot by lending the Tinsel Town credibility to the project, and Arkin, as the more flamboyant of the two, injects some needed energy into stateside scenes.
“Argo” doesn’t have the dark energy of Affleck’s directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” or the thrills of “The Town,” but it is a competently told tale about a real-life event that sounds like it could only happen in the movies.