Ken Taylor says documentary to provide more balanced picture of hostage crisis
TORONTO – The real-life Canadian hero portrayed in the popcorn thriller “Argo” says the film’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter “had no idea what he’s talking about.”
Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, took sly jabs at the Ben Affleck-directed box office hit during a talk with Ryerson University students on Thursday.
He took issue with a myriad of creative liberties that included the “black and white” portrayal of Iranian people, fabricated scenes and the suggestion he was little more than a meek observer to CIA heroics.
“Argo” traces the high-risk rescue of six U.S. citizens caught in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, a daring operation commonly referred to as the “Canadian Caper.”
The crisis made a hero out of Taylor, who kept the escapees hidden in a riotous Tehran until they could be whisked out of the country in a joint Canada-U.S. operation.
While recognizing that “Argo”‘s primary goal was entertainment, Taylor says an upcoming documentary will present a more balanced picture of his role and the situation in Iran.
“After I saw the movie I decided that I did bring one particular skill to this movie: That was opening and closing a door,” Taylor said to laughs, referring to the relatively small role he seemed to play, as portrayed by Canadian actor Victor Garber.
“We could go on but the amusing side is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he’s talking about.”
Taylor pointed to a scene toward the end in which he’s asked what he will do as escapees head to the airport. The movie version of himself responds that he’ll leave by train in half an hour.
“A train hasn’t left Tehran station for anywhere for three years,” he noted.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio is up for a best adapted screenplay Oscar.
Nonetheless jovial and full of compliments for the film’s sheer entertainment value, Taylor’s comments were offered alongside a more critical Robert Wright, author of “Our Man in Tehran: Ken Taylor and the Iran Hostage Crisis.”
“Argo” has swept recent awards bashes and heads into the Oscars later this month as a front-runner in the race for best picture.
Affleck directs and also stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez, who teams up with a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) to disguise the six U.S. citizens as a Canadian film crew working on a fake science-fiction film called “Argo.”
Taylor said the film does little to dissuade notions that Iran is “one long revolution and riot,” noting that “it characterizes people in a way that isn’t quite right.”
He said he spent almost three years in Tehran and never felt in jeopardy, describing Iranian hospitality as “warm and genuine.”
“The movie maybe didn’t give a chance that there’s another side to Iranian society which is unfortunate – that is a more conventional side, a more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn’t just a violent demonstration for nothing,” he said.
Taylor said he addresses some of these issues in a two-hour interview he did alongside his wife and Affleck for the DVD release, slated for Feb. 19.
Meanwhile, the documentary will offer more context, a greater sense of Canada’s role abroad and the true nature of an embassy, he said.
“It’s not only a story about diplomats, about my colleagues and myself but it’s also a chance to look at Iranian society in some depth,” he said, adding he hopes to have it ready for a fall release.
Producer Elena Semikina said it will include interviews with former prime minister Joe Clark and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
“‘Argo”s a great movie but it’s a completely different industry. It’s entertainment…. The story should be told from a historical perspective,” said Semikina, who is also working on a documentary about transgender beauty queen Jenna Talackova.
“We just want to get the right story, the full story of what actually happened.”
And while Taylor recognized the success of “Argo” could make it a lasting record of Canada’s role in the Iran hostage crisis, he said he believes enough people know the bigger story.
“To some extent it will be my legacy,” he allowed.
“Among my friends, they know differently. And I think as time goes on there’s a broadening impression that that really isn’t the case in the movie. But at the same time… maybe 20 years from now, it will be. But I can live with that.”
And despite the dangers involved more than 30 years ago, Taylor says there was no question that he had to step in and do what he could.
“Canada, I think, had a responsibility to respond. We were asked to respond,” he said.
“And sure there’s risks or what have you, but the alternative for the six was something you wouldn’t want to find yourself in. Not that there’s much in hindsight, but I really would have trouble if in fact, on one way or another, the Canadian embassy hadn’t taken them. That’s something that would really haunt you.”