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Fact or fiction? 'Argo' fuels Iran history debate

Michael Thurston
17 January 2013
(L-R) Actor-director Ben Affleck and producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney at the Golden Globes on January 13, 2013
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(L-R) Actor-director Ben Affleck and producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney with the award for best motion picture drama for "Argo" at the Golden Globe awards on January 13, 2013. "Argo" won the top two Golden Globes last weekend and is nominated for seven prizes at next month's Academy Awards

Iran's announcement that it will make its own film to counter the "distorted" thriller "Argo" is fueling a debate about Hollywood and historical accuracy, sparked by Ben Affleck's Oscar-tipped movie.

The film, which won the top two Golden Globes last weekend and is nominated for seven prizes at next month's Academy Awards, tells the story of a bold CIA operation to rescue six US diplomats trapped by the 1979 hostage crisis.

But it openly takes liberties with the facts. In a white-knuckle climax, for example, Iranian guards speed along a runway next to a plane carrying the escaping diplomats, threatening to stop it from taking off. That didn't happen.

Canada's role in giving refuge to the diplomats in Tehran, and securing their safe passage out of Iran, is significantly underplayed. The mission is seen as largely the work of CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck.

Mark Lijek, one of the six diplomats helped to freedom, says the actor-director is justified in massaging the facts to create a more compelling story -- although he acknowledges some concerns.

"I understand it was necessary to dramatize the facts in order to create the atmosphere a thriller requires," he told AFP after "Argo" won best picture (drama) and best director awards for Affleck at the Golden Globes.

"This film is about Tony, a slice of the whole if you will ... I do not think it would have been possible to make this film without the dramatization," he added.

The movie recounts the long-classified CIA plot to extract the diplomats by pretending that they are part of a Hollywood film crew scouting for locations for a science fiction flick.

In the film, they are given refuge by the Canadian ambassador to Tehran after escaping through a back exit as the US embassy was stormed by Islamist students, who went on to hold over 50 Americans hostage for more than a year.

CIA agent Mendez -- now in his 70s, and who spoke at last Sunday's Golden Globes ceremony -- is shown flying in, giving the diplomats their false identities, and leading them through a series of close shaves to freedom.

These include a made-up scene in a Tehran market where they are surrounded by an angry mob but just escape with their lives, as well as a fake tense scene at the airport, and the fictional runway chase.

They are also shown holed up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Tehran, Ken Taylor. In reality they were split into two groups, one with Taylor and the others with another Canadian diplomat.

Taylor, now 77, has not kicked up a major fuss. But he has made his views clear regarding some aspects of the movie's accuracy.

"The movie's fun, it's thrilling, it's pertinent, it's timely," he told the Toronto Star. "But look, Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner," he said.

Lijek said he was comfortable overall with "Argo," although he does have some concerns.

"The liberties with fact in the airport exit do not really bother me," he said of the movie's climax. "It makes for a good story."

However, "I do realize and am concerned that some viewers will see the movie as fact," he added. "That is unfortunate but Affleck and the writer are not responsible for our failure to teach history anymore."

Days after Affleck's film won gold at the Globes, Tehran announced that it was making its own movie about the American hostage drama during the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"The movie is about 20 American hostages who were handed over to the US embassy by Iranian revolutionaries at the beginning of the (Islamic) revolution," said Iranian actor and filmmaker Ataollah Salmanian.

The film "can be an appropriate response to distorted movies such as 'Argo'," he was quoted as saying in Iranian media reports.

Lijek poured barely-disguised scorn on the Iranian plans, saying he did not know what to make of the film and that, for starters, the facts were "messed up."

"The director talks about 20 Americans being released," he said. "In fact, (Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah) Khomeini authorized the release of 13 women and African-Americans early on as a gesture of Islamic charity. So it is not clear even what he is talking about."

One report suggested the film would be about the more than 50 hostages left behind in Tehran, and "will paint a rosy picture of their idyllic life in a resort-like setting at the embassy compound," he said.

But "I don't really see how they could make it about us," he added. "Are they going to change the ending and have the security forces shoot down the Airbus?"

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