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Documentaries stick to the facts that Hollywood misses

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Ben Affleck stars in Argo alongside Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
Ben Affleck stars in Argo alongside Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.

Hollywood loves the phrase “based on true events” but how many of the films that follow that phrase are fact and how many are fiction?

The Hollywood drama Argo, winner of Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards, loosely follows the story of the Canadian Caper, an undertaking by the Canadian government to remove six Americans out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage crisis in 1979.

The first few minutes of the film are a subtle intermingling of historical footage and grainy contemporary reproduction. The statement that the film is “based on true events” is superimposed on the screen followed by a sombre voice-over about the hostile political climate. It’s a film made for entertainment, and divergence from the cold hard facts should be expected from such a production.

Hollywood has never been synonymous with truth. If one wants a truer version, Canadian film-makers Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein have recently created a documentary that aptly serves that purpose. Indeed, documentaries about historical events are better, more informative productions than historical films.

The Toronto film-makers released their documentary, Our Man in Tehran, at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12. The title character is Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador to Iran at the time of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, who garnered the nickname ‘our man in Tehran’ from Prime Minister Joe Clark.

The documentary shows that the rescue mission was a combined effort of several different people and was more heavily influenced by Canadian efforts than the Hollywood movie suggests.

The documentary includes interviews with many of those involved in the undertaking, and only makes use of historical footage of the events.

The Canadian government aided the Americans by making sure that airports were as secure as possible, preparing their passports, redoing them when the wrong dates were used by the Americans and rehearsing the Americans’ falsified identites that were on their Canadian passports. Those involved included Ken Taylor and John Sheardown, Taylor’s Chief Immigration Officer, who is not mention in the Hollywood film.

Argo is based off a mixture of the true story of the Canadian Caper, the book The Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez and “The Great Escape,” an article in Wired magazine by Josh Bearman.

The rescue plot portrayed in Argo was headed mainly by a heroic Antonio Mendez (Ben Affleck). The film took several liberties for the sake of making the plot more dramatic and has been criticised for falsely depicting the British and New Zealand Embassies as turning away the Americans.

In fact, most of the difficulties the escapees encountered during the latter part of the film were embellished or completely fabricated.

There were no angry Iranian soldiers breaking down glass doors, nor were their soldiers chasing down planes with police cars in hot pursuit. That is Hollywood doing what Hollywood does best: transforming a story into a spectacle.

In reality, Tony Mendez was able to escort the diplomats through the airport and onto the plane with few hiccups.

According to the writeup on this matter on the Government of Canada’s website, Sheardown and his wife were responsible for harbouring the five Americans who escaped.

One of the escapees, an agricultural attaché named Lee Schatz, took refuge at the Swedish Embassy, while the five others, Consular attachés Joe Stafford and Mark Lijek, their wives and Robert Anders, head of the Consular Section, headed to Anders’ apartment. Schatz later left the Swedish Embassy to rejoin his American fellows, some of whom were staying at the Sheardown residence while others were staying with Taylor and his wife. Argo has them all together in Taylor’s house.

Taylor and Weinstein have been met with doubtful reactions for making their documentary so soon after the release of Argo. However, they insist that this is an important part of Canadian history that should be properly documented, rather than  made solely to create profit.

In truth, documentaries are the best — if not only — way to accurately retell historical events.

Saskatoon’s Broadway Theatre debuted Our Man in Tehran on Oct 18 and played it through to Oct. 22. The documentary can also be accessed on Movie Central.

Photo: Movie Still

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