A pivotal scene in the movie “Argo” shows CIA operative Tony Mendez (portrayed by star and director Ben Affleck) defending his fake science fiction movie plot to a U.S. diplomat caught in the crosshairs of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979.
“You really think your little story is going to make a difference?” the diplomat asks, to which Mendez responds with customary American bravado, “I think my little story is the only thing between you and a gun to your head.”
While the 2012 film received almost universal critical acclaim, garnering an Oscar for Best Picture and numerous other accolades, it was also criticized for misrepresenting how the famed rescue scheme unfolded. In truth, there was more than a “little story” standing between the American envoy and their capture.
There was a person. A Canadian.
Former Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, whom President Jimmy Carter heralded “the main hero” of the successful covert operation, was stationed in Tehran for most of the crisis. He died Thursday of colon cancer at age 81, his wife Pat told the Associated Press.
When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by Islamist students and militants, six American diplomats escaped and found sanctuary in the homes of Taylor and his first secretary John Sheardown. In addition to shielding the Americans from Iranian capture, Taylor also played a crucial role in plotting their escape.
Working with CIA officials and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, Taylor obtained for the Americans six Canadian passports containing forged Iranian visas that ultimately allowed them to board a flight to Switzerland. He undertook all these covert actions at a high personal risk, as he and his team would have been taken hostage themselves in the case of discovery by the Islamist militants.
“He did all sorts of things for everyone without any expectation of something coming back,” Pat said. “It’s why that incident in Iran happened. There was no second thought about it.”
Mark Lijek, one of the Americans in Iran whose life was saved in part by Taylor’s generosity echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
“One thing about Ken was that I don’t think he ever doubted what he was doing right,” he said. “There was never any hesitation on Taylor’s part to offer us sanctuary.”
Lijek remembers the ambassador as he was when they met: young, with big glasses and a big smile — what Lijek speculated might be “the Canadian version of a stiff upper lip.”
While the diplomats anxiously awaited news of a rescue plan for months, they took solace in Taylor’s upbeat nature. His reserved yet confident style reassured the Americans even as they whiled away hours playing Scrabble with seemingly no hope of returning home, Lijek told The Globe and Mail.
A former trade commissioner born in the Canadian prairie city of Calgary, Taylor’s low-key demeanor likely made him an outlier in American diplomatic circles. Prior to the rescue that came to be known as the “Canadian Caper,” he had been more familiar with grain deals than security briefings.
Taylor’s contributions were widely recognized upon the Americans’ safe return in 1980. He was inducted into the Order of Canada, awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and appointed the Canadian Consul-General to New York City after he left Iran.
The neighborly goodwill spread to Canada at large. As TIME reported, “With a spontaneous gush of gratitude, Americans extended congratulatory hands across the border….Where other allies had nervously shunned sanctions and offered only rhetoric against Iran, Canada had literally come to the rescue.”
Billboards in Detroit facing the Canadian border spontaneously featured Canadian maple leaves and the words “THANK YOU, CANADA,” according to TIME. Minnesotans sent “I LOVE YOU” messages to Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, Flora MacDonald, after she confirmed the news.
Yet this spirit of gratitude was notably absent from “Argo,” which was criticized for downplaying Canada’s role in the mission.
Out of concern for 50 Americans still being held hostage in 1980, President Carter’s official statement at the time wholly credited Canada and made no mention of CIA involvement. The latter was not fully revealed to the public until 1998, when newly declassified CIA files produced fodder for “Argo.”
As if in deference to this long-concealed part of the “Canadian Caper”‘s history, Affleck’s film portrayed Taylor’s team as largely passive in their participation, inciting repudiation not only from spurned Canadians but also from President Carter.
“Ben Affleck’s character in the film only stayed in Iran a day and a half,” Carter told CNN, emphasizing that Taylor really “orchestrated the whole process.”
To add insult to injury, Affleck neglected to invite Taylor to the film’s world premiere in Toronto. Friends of his who were present told the Toronto Star that the snub was a hidden blessing: “the movie was an insult to Taylor and Canada.”
The original postscript was particularly offensive, as it ironically noted that Taylor received 112 citations for his role in the escape — in a tone that suggested he was undeserving and merely received them because the CIA’s work had to be kept under wraps.
Upon learning about the controversy, an ostensibly oblivious Affleck phoned Taylor and invited him to speak openly about his qualms with the film.
In the words of the Toronto Star, this is when the “bromance” between Taylor and Affleck began, when they became “friends and allies, through an act of diplomacy.”
The director flew the Taylors into Los Angeles for a private screening of “Argo,” gave them a tour of the Warner lot, had lunch with them and listened to their reservations about the movie. All in all, they spent several hours together.
Out of respect for his new “bro,” Affleck changed the movie’s postscript to instead read: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day, the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”
The Taylors were also special guests at a screening in Washington, which Affleck termed a “thank you, Canada” event, the Toronto Star reports.
The humble former ambassador, who went on to found a public consulting firm and serve as Nabisco’s senior vice-president, was granted a green card in 1985 but told reporters he had no intention of becoming an American citizen.
In a statement Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “Ken Taylor represented the very best that Canada’s foreign service has to offer.”
Taylor spent his later years in New York City, and was being treated at New York Presbyterian hospital. As Taylor was a generous soul to the last, his son Douglas told The Globe and Mail that his father never ceased to think of others before himself, even on his deathbed.
“He was completely lucid through yesterday,” Douglas said. “In considerable pain, but wouldn’t let anybody know.”