Ar-go-get over it

21:25, Mar 17 2013

The American embassy in Tehran was overrun in November 1979. Six Americans escaped and were eventually taken in by the Canadians. No one in this country has given thought to our involvement in this international caper until a certain line, from a certain movie...

"Kiwis turned them away..."

It was a four-word reference, all of three seconds of Argo's 120-minute running time. It wasn't anything dwelt upon further in the film. New Zealand has as much to do with the "movie" Argo as it does with the season finale of Entourage where Jamie-Lynn Sigler breaks up with Turtle because she is leaving to film a TV show in New Zealand.

The Argo controversy in New Zealand is small-country syndrome, run amok. Surely, we have better things to think about?

(Drought? The Solid Energy debacle? Our crumbling cricketing legacy?)

The substance of this story has puzzled me from the start. Common language has criticised Affleck for his "treatment" of New Zealanders and for portraying our diplomats as "cowardly". The scene in question is a walk-and-talk in which it is mentioned that our diplomats and the British turned the fleeing Americans away. It moves right on and never comes back. To the best of my readings of the underlying sentiment in this brief moment in the film, it doesn't place judgment either.


The film sets up clearly the idea that Iran in the late 1970s was a hostile place for westerners. Sheltering the Americans was a difficult proposition.

How we have read cowardice in those four words and somehow turned it into a national slight amazes me. Never has so much been read into four words. Even taking the movie at face value as totally accurate, I don't think anyone not from New Zealand would have even remembered our mention an hour after watching the movie. It isn't accurate, but it is totally banal. 

Our diplomats, it transpired, quite courageously assisted the Americans in finding safe harbour, as did the British, who are mentioned in the same brief breath in the script for having turned them away. We didn't, however, take them in. Of course this isn't the truth and this isn't the full story. The Herald on Sunday did a great bit on our part in the movie yesterday. But Argo is not a movie about how the New Zealand and British diplomats bravely assisted the Americans in finding shelter at the Canadian ambassador's residence. In the broad scheme of misrepresentation this doesn't even rank.

It says in the fine print on the poster for Argo, "based on the declassified true story". The key word there, I posit to you, is "based".

In Affleck's words, when he referenced the New Zealanders and British in the film as having turned the six Americans away, "I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone."

Affleck did this because he is a filmmaker, not a historian. You read history books to learn. You go to the movies to be entertained. 

Mainstream historical movies inevitably flatten, twist and distort the truth into a narrative structure. I did not for one second come away thinking that Argo was the last will and testament on this story. I was not surprised an iota to see that the movie got several things wrong and invented moments for the sake of narrative tension (for instance, in real life the six Americans simply hopped on a plane and flew out of Tehran, there was no issue at the airport). The movie grossly over-credits the CIA's role in helping to free the six Americans, at the expense of Canada.

Argo is a relatively exciting if now quite overrated movie. It has a patchy record with real events.

I saw the reference in the film, took it as a grain of salt and felt a bit excited that I heard my home country mentioned (in America, it happens rarely). 

Argo should be seen as something to spur further interest and research into a fascinating period of history, not a historical document for us to rail against. I didn't feel outrage when I found out that New Zealand diplomats were indispensable in helping the six Americans, I felt proud to know that somewhere before I was born people were representing this country with valour. If it wasn't for Argo, I don't know if that would ever have come to my attention.

So I disagree with the upset about how Argo references New Zealand... mostly because Argo barely references us at all.

But when I consider the recent motion passed in Parliament admonishing the movie, Winston Peters stepping up to milk every drop of publicity he can from the story and our own prime minister expressing his own disappointment, it is like fingernails down a blackboard. It's so petty it makes me cross.  

LP invariably chuckles when I tell her about these parts of our country. Americans I've spoken to about it tend to find it either silly or endearingly small minded. Neither take flatters us.

If anything, we should have used Argo as an opportunity to profile the work of our overseas diplomats, not moan about a brief inaccuracy in a movie that we're about the only people to pick up on.

We care too much what people think of us. We shouldn't.  

To cap it off with a timeless Kiwi phrase... "harden up".

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