“It’s not a movie, people’s lives were really in danger!” With those words, Our Man in Tehran tips its hand at the outset, firmly positioning itself as a rebuttal to the most recent Hollywood adaptation of the Iran Hostage Crisis incident known as the Canadian Caper in 1979—an “Ar-go fuck yourself” to Ben Affleck and associates. Though entertaining on a visceral level, the Oscar-winning film’s facile handling of the complex geo-political climate of the time couched in unabashedly pro-American jingoism that bent the truth—specifically the notion that the daring escape by six American officials hiding in the Canadian Embassy was mounted solely by the CIA.
Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein’s documentary acts as a corrective of sorts, giving voice to the Canadian side of the account, and combining archival footage with new interviews from key players in the Caper. These include Canadian Ambassador Kenneth Taylor and his family, the surviving six who were in hiding, and CBC journalists covering the Crisis, as well as government officials in Canada (like former Prime Minister Joe Clark) who organized the political maneuvers of the escape. The overall picture is that the strange rescue mission, in which the six American diplomats would pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars-esque science-fiction film, involves far more logistical nuances than a Hollywood hit could hope to cover. While the archival footage is fascinating and well chosen—the film easily could have been constructed entirely of these found artifacts—the new footage is jarring. Harsh vignetting blurs the outer frame of interview segments, an odd choice that constantly distracts.
It’s to Taylor and Weinstein’s credit that their version of the story starts long before the events of the Iranian Revolution. Where Affleck’s actioner elides over the fall of the Shah with a slick montage, Our Man in Tehran paints a more nuanced portrait, covering in depth the historically strong relationship between the United States and the Shah and the eventual rising unrest of Islamists, and the ways the US and Canadian governments were unable to recognize the signs of the coming political upheaval.
But in spite of these noble intentions, the biggest problem of Our Man in Tehran is also what ultimately befalls Argo. It is the story of political unrest in Iran as told by outsiders. The protesters are rendered as a singular mass, referred to by the film’s mostly white subjects as “they” (“they stormed the streets,” “they barricaded,” etc). It is subtle, but this type of rhetoric has an “Othering” effect—and bespeaks a void where Iranian voices are still left unheard.