My first summer in Toronto, I went to see a football game. Having grown up in Regina, I was a huge fan of the Canadian Football League and my beloved Roughriders.
But I was living in a new town and figured I had to give the new team a chance to win me over. The Toronto Argonauts weren’t very good at the time and hadn’t been for a while. But I wasn’t prepared for the derision heaped on them that afternoon by their fans.
It was the first time I had ever heard a home crowd jeer and boo their own players. But it got worse late in the contest as a mournful cry echoed back and forth across the stadium.
It was like some ancient Viking wail of defeat, full of suffering and disillusion and the implication that the men on the field were misbegotten losers destined to forever dwell in a netherworld where they would never taste victory.
Today that plaintive cry might be applied to the Canadian film industry and perhaps the culture itself.
Today, Actor/Director Ben Affleck releases a new movie entitled “Argo” promoted as being the true story of the rescue of American diplomats from Iran after their embassy there was overrun in 1979.
Those paying attention or alive at the time might recall that six Americans escaped the hostage taking and took refuge with the Canadian ambassador, who managed a few months later to spirit them out of the country.
That story was a sensation at the time, igniting an outpouring of appreciation for all things Canadian in America.
I was living in LA when the story of the rescue broke and by the next morning there were billboards all over town with “Thank You, Canada” sentiments and Canadian flags flying proudly alongside the Stars and Stripes.
The Greyhound bus line even offered Canadians free travel anywhere in the US that they wanted to go.
I settled for the free drinks you got just by ordering in a Canadian accent.
A few months later, CTV produced a TV Movie of the event, “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper” written by Lionel Chetwynd and directed by the late Lamont Johnson. The film starred Gordon Pinsent as Taylor and Chris Wiggins as the ambassador’s right hand and co-conspirator John Sheardown.
In the new Hollywood version, however, the Canadian component of the story has been marginalized almost to the point of elimination. Instead of Canadian diplomats and government officials doing the grunt work of the rescue, that task falls to a character played by Affleck named Tony Mendez.
In reality, Mendez was not a field agent nor any kind of action hero but a member of the CIA’s Graphics and Authentication division, tasked with providing phony visas and documentation for the operation; some of which he got wrong, his mistakes caught by a Canadian consular official before they blew the escapees’ cover.
Now, I don’t know Tony Mendez and I’m sure he was a capable member of the CIA and remains a fine and respectable gentlemen.
And while he has a right to his version of the events, I’m not buying it. That’s mostly because I met a lot of law enforcement people while writing and producing the CBS series “Top Cops” and we frequently dealt with those who made themselves a bigger part of the story than they actually were.
I soon realized that law enforcement, like the film business (and perhaps International diplomacy) is a collaborative enterprise. Many contribute to the final outcome. Yet a few always somehow feel they have not gotten their full due.
Of course, movies require an even further contraction of time, characters and events to fit inside the running length of a feature film. Big movies with big budgets also need stars and star turns. Therefore what really happened can become further lost.
As attracted as he was to telling the Mendez version of the story (available on the CIA website) Affleck still changed much of it. Especially the ending.
For while the climactic moments of the film feature car chases and last minute escapes, the real departure of the fugitives from Tehran was about as eventful as catching a flight from Halifax to Moncton.
When “Argo” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it was well received. Yet some were aghast to learn Affleck had never contacted Ken Taylor or other Canadians involved regarding the Mendez version of the events.
Many in the audience were shocked by a tail credit which implied the CIA and US government had allowed the “Canadian Caper” to go unchallenged because it made for a better cover story.
All the Presidential and Congressional awards presented to Taylor and his compatriots were apparently just so much window dressing.
Realizing a diplomatic crisis with one of his nation’s few remaining friends might be brewing, Affleck finally contacted Taylor to chant the “It’s only a movie!” mantra while pointing out that any changes would be too expensive to contemplate, Hollywood-speak for “The train has left the station”.
He eventually offered Taylor a private screening, a couple of seats to the Washington Premiere and said, "Because we say it's based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth."
In the end, only the title card was altered.
Now, I’m quite certain that “Argo” is a fine way to spend a couple of hours. Affleck’s past directorial work on “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “The Town” have made clear he’s an eminently talented filmmaker.
But he’s also an LA bullshit artist. So ultimately my issue is less with his movie than the official Canadian reaction to it. The way those who govern and control our industry would rather chow down on an Affleck turd sandwich than fight back.
Telefilm Canada, which puts hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Toronto Film Festival each year didn’t voice the least disappointment in the fact that a movie was programmed which impugned not only a lot of Canadians but rewrote our history.
Additionally odd is that a Department of Heritage that has insisted all year we learn more about the War of 1812 remained utterly silent on more recent events long acknowledged as one of our nation’s proudest moments.
Your tax dollars spent rather than put to work.
The Film Festival itself long ago made it clear that any piece of crap with an American or International celebrity quotient deserves more screen time and media attention than the best produced cinema from within our own borders.
No surprise that such a message now endlessly replicates throughout our distribution and exhibition players.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that no one within our television community took the opportunity to use the high-visibility marketing of “Argo” to hype a re-run of “Escape from Iran”.
A few months ago, when “Battleship” was released, SyFy, the American Science Fiction channel coat-tailed that media hype storm by releasing its copycat movie “American Battleship” on the same day, reaping a ratings bonanza.
But then, to do that, Bell Media, which owns the rights to the original film (and about half the channels on your home remote) would have had to pre-empt one of its US simulcast series that will probably be cancelled in a couple of weeks anyway.
So it’s clear that those in a position to fight for and support Canadian film, Canadian culture and Canadian history on virtually every level no longer think those toiling on those fields have any hope of success.
Instead of cheering us on or taking our side or even that of Canadians in general, they are somewhere on the sidelines, whining their indifference.