Why New Zealand is officially, earnestly upset about ‘Argo’

February 27, 2013

This still from "Argo" shows Ben Affleck's character arriving in 1979 Tehran. (Warner Bros)

The prime minister of New Zealand, John Key, has called on the producers of "Argo," the now Oscar-winning film about Americans who holed up in the Canadian ambassador's house during the Iran hostage crisis, to formally apologize for the movie's portrayal of New Zealand.

Key is joined by other top New Zealand officials in complaining. Media outlets there are running indignant op-eds about it. It's a real controversy. Director Ben Affleck publicly responded, sort of. “I love New Zealand and I love New Zealanders,” he said. “I'm tempted to end there. It's tricky.”

Why is New Zealand's top politician taking the time to complain about the movie, given that most non-Kiwi viewers probably didn't even notice the film's one passing mention of his country?

First, let's back up. If you didn't see the movie, there's an early scene in which several Americans escape from the besieged Tehran diplomatic building and try to find shelter. Other Western embassies, including New Zealand's, refuse to take them in for fear of putting their own diplomats at risk. But the Canadian ambassador invites them into his home, where they remain in secret for months before sneaking out of the country.

It's not exactly the gravest insult ever made; New Zealand is lumped up with Britain, both of whose decisions is treated as understandable. Key and others say the film slights New Zealand because it doesn't reference other helpful things that the country did for the American hostages.

Somewhat humorously, New Zealanders making this argument seem to almost always point out that their country also sold a lot of lamb to Iran at the time, so it had a lot to lose! Here's a New Zealand media report summarizing Key's points:

But in the real story, we did more than that. The book Our Man in Tehran says that despite being caught in a box, because Iran was New Zealand’s largest customer for lamb, New Zealand went considerably beyond their mandate. Former ambassador Chris Beeby, who died 13 years ago, visited the hostages. He even rented a house the hostages could have used if they were discovered by the Iranians.

It's true that this was a helpful thing for the New Zealand diplomats in Tehran to do, and it's understandable why the country would want credit for it. But if you're still left with the nagging sense that elevating the issue to a public demand for apology from the prime minister seems a bit out of scale, it might help to look at the history of U.S.-New Zealand relations.

It turns out that there are some long-held grievances against the United States in New Zealand, part of a larger sense of being exploited by the fellow Anglophone nation. In 1985, not so long after the events depicted in "Argo," some French intelligence officers sank a Greenpeace ship docked in New Zealand. The ship was going to attempt to interfere in French nuclear tests on some nearby French-administered islands; the tests were also quite unpopular in New Zealand.

The 1985 incident is long and complicated, but the United States and other Western powers notably refrained from condemning the French mission. That was the beginning of New Zealand's turn away from the United States, most significantly by declaring the country nuclear-free, which meant effectively blocking the U.S. Navy from docking in the country's strategically located ports. The antagonism has thawed somewhat since then, but it's still there. Here's a good piece by D.B. Grady on the quasi-conflict:

Still, it's clear that Kiwis harbor a sort of national pride at its 25-year defiance of the United States. It didn't blink in the face of a superpower, and it won. On a recent trip to the country, I spoke with several locals for a book I was researching. Despite New Zealand's known military and intelligence assistance in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a common refrain seemed to be that such affairs were not their problem, and that while the American people are nice, U.S. foreign policy is extreme, and New Zealand doesn't want any part of it.

And this, believe it or not, is a big improvement. During the Bush administration, antagonism toward U.S. foreign policy was quite pronounced in New Zealand. Here's a Christian Science Monitor article from 2006 about Americans moving to New Zealand and being shocked by anti-Americanism there:

His experiences are echoed by some high-profile Americans. Douglas Sparks, who came to New Zealand to oversee the Anglican Church's Wellington Cathedral, suddenly packed his bags two years ago and vowed to never bring his family back. Mr. Sparks said he was the target of anti-US graffiti and his children were taunted by classmates who said they hoped US soldiers in Iraq would be killed.

And the last US ambassador to New Zealand, Charles Swindells, went out with a bang in mid-2005. In his farewell speech, he browbeat some listeners for indulging in "empty, inaccurate criticism of US ideals or actions that offers no constructive alternatives and gives no credit where credit is due." ...

Some say that common ground may contribute to anti-Americanism here. "As part of young New Zealand's ongoing quest for a national identity, some people find it useful to define themselves against America," says one senior US official.

What does this have to do with "Argo"? New Zealand's relationship with the United States has gone through some significant ups and downs in the last three decades. Right now, it's improving. For an American film to downplay New Zealand's good-faith efforts to help the United States in its time of need could be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a slap against the country. It could be seen as a reminder, in their view, that the United States doesn't take New Zealand seriously. And there might be something to that, although playing up the country's potential risk to lamb exports, however valuable, is probably not going to change many minds in America.

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Caitlin Dewey · February 27, 2013