Quotulatiousness

February 25, 2013

What Argo doesn’t show about “The Canadian Caper” of 1979

Filed under: Cancon, History, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:15

In Maclean’s, one of the American diplomats who took part in the actual hostage drama in Tehran provides a bit of supplementary material to the film Argo:

Ben Affleck’s Argo has stormed box offices, collected awards [. . .] yet Canadians of a certain age may find themselves thinking: This is not quite how I remember those days. I was there when Iranians took over the American Embassy in Tehran, and it is not quite how I remember them either. Argo is terrific entertainment, but it tells only a part of our story, and says nothing at all about many of the real heroes — most Canadian — who helped rescue us. Before Argo came along, our rescue was routinely called the “Canadian Caper.” It still should be. The operation consisted of four distinct phases. Three were almost entirely Canadian, and only one involved significant U.S. assistance.

For those not of a certain age, a brief summary is a good starting point. Nov. 4, 1979 brought cold rain and hinted of trouble of a different sort. Two weeks earlier, then-president Jimmy Carter decided to admit the former shah of Iran to the U.S. for cancer treatment. Iranians were outraged; many suspected it was a plot by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to remove Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and put the shah back in charge. Protests outside Tehran’s U.S. Embassy had become daily occurrences. That November morning, demonstrators climbed the gate and soon controlled the compound.

[. . .]

Phase four always receives the least attention. The U.S. government was desperate to keep the CIA’s role secret, rightly fearing its disclosure might endanger the hostages (who weren’t freed until 1981). This concern was sufficiently real that we were asked to live under false names in Florida until the hostages were set free. I was looking forward to seeing how many speeding tickets my alter ego could accumulate, but La Presse decided to publish Jean Pelletier’s story once the Canadian Embassy in Tehran had closed. We came home to a rousing reception and the Canadians were asked to claim complete credit for our escape. That job understandably fell to ambassador Taylor, who spent the better part of a year on the rubber chicken circuit at receptions to honour the Canadian government and people for helping us. Some have said he did the job too well, or failed to share the credit with other embassy staff. My own experience contradicts this. I heard Taylor speak several times. He always mentioned his staff. I also tried, during press interviews I gave, to mention others, particularly the Sheardowns. My comments were edited out. It seemed the press could handle only one hero at a time. Unfortunately, this meant John Sheardown, who was indispensable in phase one, became invisible in phase four. I truly believe John did not care. He did his duty as he saw it. For those who loved and respected him, it was painful.

[. . .]

As I wrote at the beginning, Argo is a wonderful film. Not because it is historically accurate, but because, aside from its technical brilliance, it reminds us of a time when ordinary people performed great deeds, and two neighbours that feud over many small and not so small things came together and did something magnificent. Maybe it didn’t change history, but for we six house guests it was truly life changing. And it was, and should always remain, the Canadian Caper.

2 Comments

  1. It’s Hollywood; they always gin things up to be more dramatic (and more appealing to an American audience).

    All you really need to know about Argo is that its world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of last year, and at the time the vast majority of Canuck reviewers were only interested in giving it a tongue bath–not nitpicking over its verisimilitude.

    If they had any credibility and integrity (not to mention cultural memory), they would’ve started squawking the moment the lights went up on the first screening. All the noise now is mere bandwagoning to cover the fact that they’re lousy at their jobs.

    Comment by Chris Taylor — February 25, 2013 @ 13:50

  2. It’s Hollywood; they always gin things up to be more dramatic (and more appealing to an American audience).

    Yep. It’s expected of them and it’s possible that it really does make a significant difference at the box office.

    As for the opinion boomerang of Canuckistani movie reviews … nobody should be surprised, really. At TIFF, they were star-struck that even one of the glittering big-time Hollywood movies mentioned the mere existence of Canada. Now that it’s a big success in the US, striking a controversial position gets them more page views and/or attention from the big fish in the US media reviewing world. Stimulus-response.

    Comment by Nicholas — February 25, 2013 @ 14:35

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