Review: “Our Man in Tehran”

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Films based on true stories can be mightily entertaining, but even the best of them still leave me wondering which details are true, and which are screenwriter’s inventions. “Argo” found great success with the mostly-true tale of the CIA’s sneaking of 6 diplomats out of Iran in 1979. But it short-changed the extent of the role that Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and the Canadian government played in making it all possible.

In the case of this “historical” tale, I had the advantage of having actually followed it on the news when it happened. So “Argo’s” dramatic race-to-the-airport finale, while well done, had me chuckling more than gripping my seat. While it was great to see some of the Canadian angle – as well as frizzy-haired Ken Taylor himself – represented, I knew a lot was being left out.

So it was with great anticipation that I watched “Our Man in Tehran” tonight at the VanCity theatre. It’s a documentary that provides a more complete telling of the so-called “Canadian Caper” through interviews with those who were there. And it did not disappoint – in fact, for my money it held as much drama and tension as “Argo”, as well as a few good laughs.

In 1979, while Iranian student revolutionaries took more than 50 US embassy officials hostage, six others escaped end ended up at the Canadian embassy. Like “Argo”, “Our Man in Tehran” tells how they escaped, but gives a more thorough context, and provides details that “Argo” either left out or changed.

One point that stood out for me was the needless complexity of the CIA’s cover story for the escapees. The Canadians had suggested that they purport to be a Canadian documentary crew, in Tehran to film the story of the Revolution from the students’ own perspective. A lot more plausible – and likely to be better received by the Iranians should they need to explain it – than to be there as Hollywood producers scouting locations for a science fiction film. And given that they would be traveling with (fake) Canadian passports, why have them then be coming from Hollywood?

In the end, though, it worked – but mostly because, unlike the amped-up finale to “Argo”, the trip through the gauntlet of airport security, customs officers and Revolutionary Guards was mercifully uneventful.

Another aspect of the story understandably left out of “Argo” was how, with the CIA’s three Iranian operatives incapacitated as hostages, the US asked the Canadians to assist in intelligence-gathering to lay the groundwork for a possible military rescue operation for the 52 hostages. (This “Operation Eagle Claw” later was put into action, with disastrous results.)

Overall, it was an exciting and enlightening trip back to when I was 15, and I was delighted to again see some very familiar faces of the time – from Knowlton Nash and Walter Cronkite delivering the news, to an almost impossibly young – and thin – Joe Clark. It brought back quite a flood of memories of my life at that time that are still vivid.

In the end, one has to note the irony that the Americans took a “Hollywood” approach to the rescue and later made a Hollywood film about it… while the Canadians suggested a more down-to-earth documentary approach and then made… a documentary. How Canadian!

All in all, “Our Man in Tehran” is further proof that a factual tale well told can be gripping fare. It’s a film every Canadian – plus anyone who thought “Argo” was the whole story – should see.

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