REVIEW: Our Man in Tehran

Directed by: Larry Weinstein & Drew Taylor
With: Ken Taylor, Joe Clark, Flora MacDonald, Tony Mendez, Zena Sheardown, Carole Jerome, Joe Schlesinger, William Daugherty, Gary Sick, Bob Anders

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

It’s appropriate yet ironic that this year’s TIFF featured a documentary relating the true story of what happened to the members of the American diplomatic corps who were hidden by Canadians during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Last year, Ben Affleck’s inaccurate but vastly entertaining drama of how the CIA’s Tony Mendez got six Americans out of Iran won multiple Oscars. This year, Canadians are countering with—what else?—a doc on the same subject.

It’s safe to say that Our Man in Tehran, which opens commercially this week, won’t gross anything near what Argo did on its first weekend in theatres last year. The vast majority of people will go to their graves thinking that the CIA planned the great escape from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime solo with only minimal assistance from their loyal but slightly dull Canadian friends. Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor’s documentary shows otherwise—and it turns out that the real story is compelling, too.

Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor (no relation to director Drew) emerges as a hero in this account as does his colleague John Sheardown. The two risked their lives and those of their families and co-workers to illegally host and then help to save the six Americans who had managed to escape from their compound while revolutionary Iranians were capturing all of their colleagues. Our Man in Tehran’s doc team interviewed four of the Americans, Ken Taylor and his wife, John Sherdown’s widow Zena and a number of others who were caught up in the most important story of 1979: the Iran hostage crisis. For more than a year, over 50 Americans—those who hadn’t escaped to their Canadian allies—were held by members of Khomeini’s revolutionary guard while President Jimmy Carter attempted to negotiate for their release.

Our Man in Tehran does an excellent job of depicting the issues surrounding the coming of Khomeini and the Iran revolution. Archival footage shows the charm of the Shah of Iran towards the West and the corruption that was taking place in his homeland. It’s made clear how and why Carter made the mistakes that turned the United States into the most demonic of global powers, from an Iranian perspective. In the end, of course, Carter lost his presidency to Ronald Reagan, to a large extent due to his manhandling of the whole hostage scenario.

If there was one bright point for the Carter regime during that convulsive period in 1970-80, it was the smuggling out of the six Americans, using the crazy excuse of them being Canadian filmmakers working on a potential feature to be shot with Hollywood money in Iran. While Mendez certainly crafted that scenario and took risks himself, he was only in Tehran for weeks. The Canadians stood firm, hosting the “six” for over three months.

Our Man in Tehran gives Canada back its own heroic tale of the Iran hostage crisis. It’s a solid, well structured doc that should be seen by many Canadians—and not a few Americans, too.