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Argo: How Hollywood Sees Canadians

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This post first appeared in the CIGI blog Worlds of Global Governance.

Argo's treatment of the escape from Tehran of six U.S. embassy staff in January 1980 offers ample psychological compensation for the image of American vulnerability. In this respect, the movie's dealing with this episode is part of a genre about resilience that goes back to Rambo and other narratives concerning the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The twist however is that ownership of the Tehran drama does not belong to the U.S. alone. As witnessed by the fact that it is widely known as the Canadian Caper, credit must be extended beyond the well-trodden script of American derring-do under stressful circumstances.

The manner by which the movie brings in non-U.S. agency allows an interesting lens through which competing conceptual perspectives concerning Canada's role in the world can be assessed. For, the global identity of a country like Canada is inherently subjective -- that is to say, highly contested in nature.

Certainly Argo aims to dispel any notion that Canada is a principal power, with the operational capacity to act alone in a decisive fashion. In Ben Affleck's movie the rubric Canadian Caper is a convenient ruse that masks U.S. leadership -- most notably via the individual ingenuity and networking skills (via the contacts he has established with Hollywood through other cloak and dagger operations) of CIA operative Tony Mendez. Downplaying the role of Mendez in real life -- though not in the Hollywood version -- is simply designed to maintain secrecy. Although thoroughly deserving of the Intelligence Star he ultimately receives for the successful "exfiltration," Mendez has to wait for almost a decade to keep the medal until the mission is declassified.

Yet, unlike the U.K. and New Zealand (which are inaccurately depicted in Argo as refusing safe haven to the six when they evade capture by Iranian revolutionary guards in the storming of the American embassy), Canadian agency is not written out of the script. Indeed -- helped by the critical reception the movie received when previewed at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and with some added input from Ambassador Ken Taylor -- Canada's role is amplified in a number of ways. Most significantly, the postscript of the film has been altered to declare that the escape was possible due to the work of the CIA complemented by efforts of the Canadian embassy.

Hands down, therefore, Argo meshes with a Middle Power representation of Canadian diplomacy even to the point of what can be termed first-followership. Canada is viewed as fully on-side with the U.S. in terms of values. This point is reinforced by Ken Taylor's emphasis in subsequent interviews that his motivation for helping the U.S. was in large part due to Iran's violation of diplomatic status, of particular importance to a country such as Canada. After the escape of the six U.S. officials takes place, Ambassador Taylor conducts a closure of the Canadian embassy with an orderly departure of Canadian diplomats.

Argo casts a wide net in terms of human interest. According to the movie, for example, the facilitation of the exit of the loyal embassy housekeeper, who had close knowledge about the American "guests," is facilitated. If tangential to the main story line of the movie, such attention by Hollywood is interesting in comparison to real life because the situation of locally engaged staff is back as a topic of controversy due to the recent decision of the Harper government (September 2012) to suspend diplomatic relations with Iran.

Indeed, another former Canadian ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, has criticized this decision not only for its strategic implications (for reducing Canada's influence) but also because of the manner in which the decision was taken, abruptly and without consideration for locally engaged staff. In his Globe and Mail Op Ed, Mundy states that: "Blindsided by Ottawa's decision, [locally engaged staff are] now in danger of becoming collateral damage."

Notwithstanding such snapshots, though, Canada's role is largely reduced to the role of one man (Ambassador Taylor) in parallel and supportive fashion to the amplification of a single CIA operative's role who almost single-handedly, according to Argo, creates and delivers the escape of the six using the identities of a Hollywood crew -- as implausible an interpretation in real life as the fictitious chase scene is at the end of the movie.

As in most operational success stories in global affairs the escape from Tehran was a collective team effort involving a mix of entrepreneurial and technical skills. Unlike the inevitable compression in terms of movie characterization, credit for the Canadian Caper needs to be spread around from the Canadian Prime Minister, Joe Clark, and foreign minister, Flora MacDonald [1] to a wider set of pivotal state officials. This latter group included the bureaucrats in charge of assessing and relaying intelligence reports, making sure proper approval was given for the issuing of fake passports, and that the mistakes made by the CIA on the dates for the fake Iranian entry and exit visas were rectified.

In broad strokes Argo opens up the scope of national agency a crack beyond U.S.-centrism. The movie also does an excellent job of capturing some key components of the Canadian helpful fixer personality, albeit in unique circumstance. Nevertheless, as always with Hollywood, detail that complicates or gets in the way of a good drama is shoved aside. Star power, especially if it showcases innovative forms of deception and an individualistic style of delivery, wins out!

[1] Flora MacDonald, in Robert Wright's authoritative book, Our Man in Tehran (Harper Collins, 2011), dismisses completely the need for a Hollywood sub-plot, arguing that the six should and would have got out using the identities of (blander!) Canadian citizens such as those working in oil exploration.

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