Sunday, January 06, 2013

Why let facts get in the way of reel life?

Think of Patton and the legendary general's cinematic "conquest" of northern Africa - after the decisive Battle of El Alamein. Or The Great Escape, where there were no American prisoners of war, only those from Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Most filmgoers these days don't know and don't care, as long as they are treated to a couple of hours of entertainment. But for those with a deep knowledge of a subject, or who were involved personally, such films can leave a bitter taste.
The 2007 action flick American Gangster did that for me, simply because it perpetuated a myth some of us have spent a lot of time trying to rebuff: that heroin was smuggled out of Vietnam in the coffins of American war dead.
So, given the praise heaped on actor-director Ben Affleck's political thriller Argo, which may well be headed for an Academy Award nomination, I was curious what someone who went through the 444-day Iranian hostage drama thought of it.
Mr Victor Tomseth, later US deputy chief of mission in Bangkok and ambassador to Laos, was one of 66 Americans taken hostage after the embassy in Teheran was seized by radical students on Nov 4, 1979.
He thinks that the best book on the crisis was Guests Of The Ayatollah by Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, which was turned into a film that stuck pretty much to the facts.
Argo, he says, does not. But then it was mostly the work of Hollywood screenwriter Chris Terrio, who was a toddler at the time of the hostage-taking, and dwells more narrowly on how the Canadians and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped six American diplomats to escape.
The central figure in the film is CIA agent Tony Mendez, who concocted the idea of using a Canadian film crew as a cover to get the agriculture attache and five consular officials out of Teheran using passports issued by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.
Mr Tomseth, who is back in the United States now, told me he had a good idea what the storyline was before he actually saw the film in November. "My conclusion after seeing it: Well-made and acted but pay attention to the disclaimer at the outset - 'based on a true story'."
His biggest complaint is the way the film makes it appear that the escape of the six was essentially a CIA operation, with the Canadians playing a passive role.
"That is a gross distortion of what actually happened," he says. "The operation was primarily a Canadian one, with the US government - including the CIA - playing a supporting role."
In fact, Canadian ambassador Taylor was anything but benign, described by a fellow diplomat I know as a "total iconoclast" who shunned an office desk and was so flamboyant in his previous job as head of the trade commissioner's service that he was banished to Teheran.
Two of the Americans stayed with Mr Taylor and his Australian- Chinese wife, Pat, an Aids researcher, in the basement of their house. The other four hid in the homes of other Canadian embassy staff.
Another distortion concerns the documentation the six needed to leave Iran, something Mr Tomseth knew a lot about from his time as a consular officer in Chiang Mai in 1967, his first overseas posting.
The film shows Mendez picking up a pile of yellow forms as he passes through Teheran's Mehrabad airport and later telling the diplomats they need to fill them out because they would be compared against airport entry records as they left.
Well, that wasn't - and still isn't - how the system works in Iran. A foreigner travelling there will have an entry visa in his passport issued by an Iranian embassy or consular post abroad.
An exit visa then has to be stamped into the passport by one Iranian government office or another, depending on the type of entry visa, so the traveller can present it on departure.
In reality, one of the tasks assigned to the CIA in the lead-up to the escape was to put false entry and exit visas into the Canadian passports which had been issued by the Ottawa government under false names.
But Langley got it wrong. Mr Taylor later told Mr Tomseth that when the passports arrived in the Canadian diplomatic pouch, the dates on the exit visas were found to be incorrect, mistakenly showing the Americans entering Iran after they had left.
It was too late to send them back, so the Canadians doctored the dates, "using a sharpie and a safety pin".
Mr Taylor felt the six needed to be informed of the glitch so they would be prepared for any trouble they might encounter. Their nervousness only intensified when mechanical difficulties delayed the departure of their Swissair flight.
But the Iranians did not catch the changes and the six Americans passed through passport control without a problem.
Certainly, there was no piecing together of photographs or Iranian Revolutionary Guards chasing after the plane, the most blatant piece of Argo's cinematic fiction.
That's Hollywood after all.