Filmmakers Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein have sought to set the record straight with Our Man in Tehran, a documentary deemed by many to be the response to Ben Affleck’s Hollywood drama Argo (2012). Screened at this year’s Possible Worlds Film Festival, the former aims to provide an objective account of the 1979-81 American hostage crisis in Iran. Its perspective is unambiguously Canadian, but its directors seemingly committed to a balanced portrayal of the contentious events.
Our Man in Tehran’s subject matter addresses the aforementioned hostage crisis from a contextualised beginning to the conclusion of the crisis. It traces back through to the tense circumstances from which the crisis emerged, almost too complex and intricate to be summarised concisely here. To its credit, it does provide this contextualisation however, albeit through the mouthpieces of key Western journalists covering the events at the time. The political tensions are carefully and skilfully laid out: America’s close relations with Iran’s former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, viewed as a despot in his own country; the ensuing Iranian Revolution spearheaded by the Shah’s rival, the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; the acceptance of the Shah into their country for medical treatment following his overthrow during the Revolution. Following Khomeini’s rise to power and burgeoning strife between the US and Iran, Iranian students stormed the former’s embassy in Tehran, Iran and took fifty-two American officials inside captive. Thus followed a joint-operation between Canadian and US officials in order to extricate six of the hostages. However, in the lead-up to the rescue mission, it was the former Canadian ambassador – Ken Taylor, the eponymous Man in Tehran – who had sheltered those detainees as the mission went underway. Here, the documentary finds much of its focus: those Canadians who, in fact, played pivotal roles in ensuring the escape of the six US diplomat hostages.
In shifting the supposed perception of former CIA agent Tony Mendez as the orchestrator-in-chief of the delicate rescue mission, as perpetrated by Affleck’s Argo, Our Man in Tehran succeeds. Directors Taylor and Weinstein opted for the straight-shooting, traditional historical documentary and it works, to a degree. Talking heads with an impressive, extensive array of subjects – including Ken Taylor himself, Mendez, the former hostages, former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, and other Canadian ex-politicians – not only permit the story to be unfurled through the words of those who were directly involved, but paint a more comprehensive and celebratory account of Canada’s (accurate) daring and self-sacrificing involvement. In this sense, it’s an engaging enough watch that the documentary – comprised solely of talking heads, and archival footage and photography – never feels much longer than its 85 minutes. The archival footage is used to great effect, with the filmmakers eschewing historical re-enactments (thankfully) for well-sourced photographs and video footage of the crisis. At moments, there is a powerful effect elicited by the Ken Burns-ian sliding up of a full-length photograph to linger on the Grand Ayatollah’s face. There’s almost a menace to it, and leaves you particularly conscious of what gaze may be operating there.
This is possibly the crux of the issue to be taken with Taylor and Weinstein’s documentary. Deemed the response to Argo, but without any suggestion as to which part of Argo offends in particular beyond its fictional liberties and perhaps emotional manipulation, Our Man in Tehran fails as this omnipotent, objective truth-piece. Under this kind of framework, the documentary doesn’t hold up – it acts as a celebration of Ken Taylor’s work, and by extension the work of other Canadians. No surprises there: it’s a Canadian production. This is not to say that they are undeserving of this celebration and recognition – quite the opposite. Nevertheless, the documentary simply shifts the congratulation from Mendez to the Canadians, even in its measured and well-informed account of events. The fact remains that the production is a Western one, with less investigation into the Iranian perspective.
This predicament isn’t one of the film’s own engineering, merely the way in which its content has been anticipated and/or received. It’s not a catchall response and what it does best is illuminate the Canadian input. Trying to elevate it to some level of entirely objective documentary – a slippery concept at best and arguably invalid – is a futile effort.
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