Even before Argo opened in 2012, much less won Best Picture the following spring, it caused controversy for the way it portrayed the historical events at the center of its story. Aside from adding events that never happened, Ben Affleck’s film underplayed the critical role of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who hid American diplomats for three months and orchestrated their escape. Argo originally featured pre-end-credits text claiming the U.S. government allowed Canada to take credit for the diplomats’ escape for political reasons, sarcastically noting the more than 100 commendations Taylor had received for his work. Affleck changed it before the film’s release to better reflect the work Taylor and Canada did, but the film remained an homage to the strange marriage of the CIA and Hollywood, as managed by American spy Tony Mendez (played by Affleck).
Two years after Argo won Best Picture, Canada’s rejoinder arrives in the form of Our Man In Tehran, a documentary by Drew Taylor (no relation to Ken Taylor) and Larry Weinstein. Based in part on Robert Wright’s 2010 book of the same name, the film assembles the event’s key players and other experts to tell the unvarnished story, going into the U.S. government’s tricky relationship with the Shah of Iran, the rise of the Iranian insurgency, the fall of the Shah, and the aftermath that led to the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the international crisis it created.
Part of the frustration with Argo was its need to gild the lily. The story of how these people escaped Iran was engrossing enough. Why add stuff like a fictitious runway chase? While Our Man In Tehran never mentions Argo (though Ben Affleck offered to narrate the documentary, and its key art proclaims it’s “The true story of Argo”), it’s clearly meant to give due credit to Ken Taylor—who wasn’t consulted for Argo or invited to its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The title Our Man In Tehran comes from Jimmy Carter’s description of Taylor, and the closing scene of the film—with a voice-over about true heroes and a dashing shot of Taylor —couldn’t be any less subtle.
That’s not necessarily a problem. When he’s not reading a scripted voice-over, Taylor is an engaging interviewee, especially compared to Argo’s hero, Tony Mendez, who’s pretty wooden on camera. Also great are the escapees, former hostage William Daugherty, former Carter administration security advisor Gary Sick, and the journalists whom Taylor and Weinstein interview. For people with a limited understanding of the Iranian Revolution, Our Man In Tehran offers an easily digestible history lesson.
The film stalls a bit when it goes into Canadian political theater around the time of the crisis, and cinematographer John M. Tran has a distracting habit of blurring his shots around a focal point, but the story can’t help but work—even when its directors are beating viewers over the head with the message.