Our Man in Tehran (First Run Features, NR)

dvd man in tehranThe focus is not on the American hostages or on the CIA, but on the staff of the Canadian embassy, in particular, Ken Taylor, Canada’s then-ambassador to Iran.

 

 

 

I wasn’t all that surprised when Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012 over more interesting, but less immediately pleasing pictures like Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln, because it’s not the first time Academy has often betrayed a preference for simple stories about complex topics (the 2006 Best Picture Crash being the poster child for this tendency). I did wonder, however, how much the real story of the rescue of six American diplomatic officials actually resembled the conventions of an action movie, and how much of what we saw on the screen was just Hollywood being Hollywood.

Of course, Argo is a fiction film and has no obligation to adhere to the truth of the events it portrays. It’s always instructive, however, to see how truth has been altered in the service of fiction, because those changes often betray the point of view of the filmmakers and what they assume will result in an audience-pleasing film (in this case, with particular emphasis on pleasing American audiences). In that context, Our Man in Tehran, a documentary by Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein, makes for very interesting viewing, because it offers an alternative, fact-based version of the events fictionalized in Argo.

The focus in Our Man in Tehran is not on the American hostages or on the CIA, but on the staff of the Canadian embassy, in particular, Ken Taylor, Canada’s then-ambassador to Iran. Additional voices from the Canadian government and reporters are heard (an extraordinary amount of behind-the-scenes political negotiation was required by the Canadians to create and facilitate the rescue plan), and the voices of Americans are also included. This film does not attempt to present an Iranian point of view of the events surrounding the hostage taking and rescue (that would require another film), but does offer a more nuanced history of relations between Iran and the United States than has been provided in most American media.

The courage of the Canadian diplomatic staff is obvious—harboring fugitives wanted by the Iranian government could have led to interrogation, torture, or worse—but their competence was equally important. In one telling incident near the end of the film, it is revealed that the fake Canadian passports were provided with visas bearing a date based on the Western, rather than the Islamic, calendar, a mistake by the CIA that could have been fatal to the Americans fleeing the country. Fortunately, the Canadian staff spotted the error and a new set of passports and visas was produced. That simple mistake, and its correction, stand as a symbol for American cultural insensitivity and ignorance, and the contrasting virtue (exemplified by the Canadian staff) of knowing and understanding the values and customs of the country in which you are working.

Our Man in Tehran is a conventional documentary in form, made up of archival footage and contemporary interviews with Taylor and his family, Canadian journalists and politicians, the surviving hostages, and CIA operatives involved in the rescue. Taylor and Weinstein go out of their way to make the filmed interviews visually interesting, which is in principle admirable, but sometimes get carried away to the point where their use of devices—such as attention-getting cuts, pull focus, inclusion of camera and microphones in the shots, and wide shots with an out-of-focus background—become a distraction from what the interviewee has to say.

Extras on the disc include a discussion with the co-directors (6 min.), a Q&A session from the Toronto International Film Festival (32 min.), a “playable soundtrack” (basically a menu that allows you to play the soundtrack as if it were a CD), and trailers for other films distributed by First Run Features. | Sarah Boslaugh

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