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HindustanTimes Sun,31 Aug 2014

The heartburn of Argo

Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times   March 03, 2013
First Published: 01:00 IST(3/3/2013) | Last Updated: 02:02 IST(3/3/2013)

Ken Taylor enjoyed Argo, a movie he lived as the Canadian ambassador to Iran the winter of 1978. But he also said to himself, “Gee, I should have been there.”

His wife Pat Taylor, who was an equal partner in that adventure, was more forthright: “A lot of that movie is not true.” But that didn’t come in the way of Argo and Oscars.

Taylor, a tall man with a full mop of curly hair, which over time has gone white, was in New York on Friday speaking about the movie, Iran and life after.

In a story teeming with heroes, Ben Affleck never had a chance to be fair to all of them, not even a handful of them. He went with one of them, leaving many feeling let down.

Specially Canadians, starting with Taylor, who some in his country believe was turned into a mere doorman, who took in the Americans and gave them food and wine (loads of it).

And when the time came, the Canadians said of the movie, Taylor and his wife were shown merely handing them over to Tony Mendez, CIA’s master of disguise and exfiltration. The Taylors found that portrayal offensive.

The ambassador and his wife had taken in two of the six American diplomats who had escaped into the city after Iranians took over the US embassy in November 1979.

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The other four found shelter at the home of another Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, who, in actuality, set the ball rolling on what came to called the Canadian Caper.

Sheardown was the American diplomats’ first contact with the Canadian embassy personnel in Tehran, after a brief stay at the British facility and elsewhere.

The Iranian revolutionaries wouldn’t know of them until much later, and if caught the Americans faced anything from a firing squad as spies to a public trial accompanied by torture.

“Why didn’t you call me before?” Sheardown told Robert Anders, one of the American diplomats, when they fist established contact.

The Canadian offered to take them all in without even checking with his boss, Ambassador Taylor. A risk for all of them, the rest of the mission and the country.

Mark Lijek, one of the six American diplomats, called Sheardown “the man most responsible for our finding refuge” in an article he wrote last year, during the making of Argo.

Lijek served as a consultant on the film but was scathing in denouncing it. “Argo is a wonderful entertainment, if less than accurate history,” he wrote in the same article.

The movie doesn’t acknowledge Sheardown or his contribution at all, which is not surprising, as Ambassador Taylor would go on to become the face of Canadian help.

He became a hero in the US. And the narrative of the escape acknowledging Canadian primacy remained prevalent till 1997, when CIA decided to own up the operation.

The story changed. It was now the handiwork of the master of CIA’s disguise outfit Antonio Mendez, played by Affleck. The Canadians were sent to the back of the car.

That’s how it may have stayed forever, however, if “Wired” magazine had not followed it up with a story in 2006, rights to which were bought next year by George Clooney.

Clooney, who has done such spy thrillers as Syriana, may have wanted to play Mendez, but the story simply joined a stack of his other projects. Until 2011.

“It’s Ben,” the caller said.

“I don’t know (any) Ben,” Taylor remembers telling the caller.

Oh, of course, he figured. It was Ben Affleck.

This was the week following Argo’s premiere at the Toronto film festival. It was Tuesday, Taylor remembers, when the phone rang. “I believe we have some issue,” said Affleck.

Canada’s role was acknowledged as a result of the conversation. But that wasn’t all. Taylor is upset the film was premised on correcting the role of Canadians by reallocating credit, and now fully, to the CIA. “Not acceptable,” he said.

Then US president Jimmy Carter agrees.

“I would say that 90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian,” Carter told an interviewer in the week leading up to the academy awards.

“The movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie’s very good,” said Carter, adding he hopes it got the academy award for best film.

It did. But not in the category of documentaries.

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