Tuesday 7 June 2016

Our Man in Tehran

In 2012, a film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards but is now all but forgotten. In a few years’ time, if BBC’s Pointless had a category on ‘Best Picture Winners’, this would surely be one of the best answers on the board. The film, of course, was Ben Affleck’s Argo. It was a somewhat fictionalized (some even call it a ‘fairy tale’) account of the ‘Canadian Caper’, a covert rescue of six American diplomates who had evaded capture during the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, Iran back in 1979. 

For those who don’t know, it was one of the most fascinating stories in the history of hostage rescue. The “caper” involved CIA agents joining the diplomates the form a fake film crew who were supposedly scouting for shooting locations for their sci-fi film Argo. It was a hugely successful mission. Now, thanks to directors Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein, we have a more factual account of the historic event. Our Man in Tehran, which is out now on DVD, is a fascinating documentary that shifts the focus from Tony Mendez (who Ben Affleck played in Argo) and instead puts it on Kenneth D. Taylor. Taylor was Canada’s ambassador to Iran in the 1970s and was integral to the engineering and execution of the ‘Canadian Caper’. Taylor wasn’t consulted on the production of Affleck’s film, nor was he invited to the premiere. Poor guy.

When Affleck’s Argo opened in 2012, it was met with controversy for its fast-and-loose portrayal of ‘the truth’. Events were fabricated, important facts were left out and key-players were largely ignored – like Taylor himself. Our Man in Tehran, shot in 2013, sets the record straight. Based in part on Robert Wright’s 2010 book of the same name, this gripping documentary assembles the event’s key players and some experts in a way that would make the Avengers proud. Even the real Tony Mendez shows up, probably still chuffed he can tell his friends that Ben Affleck has played him in a film. But it is Kenneth D. Taylor who is our hero, narrating the story as well as contributing as an interviewee throughout the film. Ben Affleck did offer to narrate the film, but he was turned down. Hello darkness, my old friend…

In terms of content, Our Man in Tehran is pretty packed – and very political. The film certainly has a few things to say about history and arguably about the world today, through its discussion of the US government’s tricky relationships and the rise of insurgency. And while it does often feel quite heavy-handed, putting its message onto a spoon and saying “open up for the airplane”, it’s one of those timeless stories that will always be relevant. And thankfully, those who don’t know a huge amount about the Iranian Revolution and the ‘Canadian Caper’ need not worry about understanding the information here. Our Man in Tehran offers a straight-forward and accessible history lesson – something you don’t get from the fantasy that is Affleck’s film.

If you think you’re going to walk away from this film with any thought other than ‘Kenneth D. Taylor is a legend’, think again. The film even ends on a shot of the man, while a voiceover describes what it is to be a true hero. Subtle? Nope. But true? Yes. Taylor was, until this film, one of the great unsung heroes of history. But now, thanks to Our Man in Tehran, hopefully more people will know his name. Kenneth D. Taylor. “You’re goddamn right”.

Affleck’s Argo was heavily criticised by many for glorifying the CIA’s role in the rescue and minimizing the Canadian government’s, especially Taylor’s. Argo even claims ‘the CIA let Taylor take the credit for political purposes’. Former US president Jimmy Carter responded, publicly stating ‘90% of the plan’ was Canadian, and that in his opinion, the main hero was Taylor, who he says orchestrated the entire process. “Argo f*ck yourself”, Affleck.

Our Man in Tehran is a powerful and engrossing documentary about one of the most fascinating covert rescue missions in history. And more than that, it shines a light on a man who deserves to be known. 4/5.

Kenneth D. Taylor passed away October 15th, 2015. May he continue to rest in peace.


Sam Love

Our Man in Tehran at CeX

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