Hollywood rewrites history again in Affleck’s Argo

Identifying with past experiences and pondering their significance deepens our experience of what it is to be human. History is a dialogue between the past and the present. We ask questions about the past because of things that we’re concerned with now.
– Prof. Jan Noel, U of T Magazine, Autumn 2012

Tensions in the Middle East…embassies under siege…flashback to Nov. 4, 1979. Six American consular officers evade capture in the Iran Hostage Crisis and find refuge in the  Tehran residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and Chief of Immigration John Sheardown.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, opening Friday, tells the CIA/Hollywood version of the events. Argo makes for terrific entertainment but dubious history. Should we care?

October is History Month, but don’t go to the movies expecting to see a “true story.” Hollywood never lets the facts get in the way of a good yarn about a lone wolf maverick, an American hero rescuing the good guys from the bad guys, like Jason on the good ship Argo saving the Golden Fleece from the evil Dragon. Argo will be a huge hit, but it’s mostly myth. Tinseltown loves to pat itself on the back, so expect to see Alan Arkin, right, on Oscar night.

Back in 1981, Escape from Iran: the Canadian Caper, starring Gordon Pinsent as Ken Taylor, told the same story from a very different perspective. The docudrama, the first CBS TV movie filmed in Canada, stuck to the facts known at the time. The six Americans leave Iran on Canadian passports posing as grain exporters from Etobicoke. In 1997 the covert involvement of the CIA was declassified and the cover story of a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic called Argo came out.

Escape from Iran filmed in and around Toronto, which cast and crew dubbed ‘Tehranto’. (This nickname was also used by Canadian diplomats in Iran.) Producers decided there was no need to go all the way to the Middle East. The entire picture was shot here. The former Scarborough Board of Education building on Borough Drive became the American Embassy, with the Royal York Hotel ballroom as the interior. A wall was built to recreate the student assault. Kensington Market was used as a bazaar and the CNE depicted Mehrabad Airport.

“So much of the movie is total fiction,” Ken Taylor said in Maclean’s magazine. “My concern is that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.”

Affleck had the gall to come to Toronto and claim his movie says ‘Thank you, Canada’, when it all but ignores the Canadian team effort. Argo tacks on a wholly fictional cloak-and-dagger ending which distorts the entire event.


The CIA’s Tony Mendez wasn’t even in Tehran except for two nights in January 1980. Taylor is sure the Canadians could have spirited their ‘houseguests’ out of Iran without any American involvement.

There are 190 actors listed in Argo, yet John Sheardown doesn’t even rate a footnote. Sheardown made contact with the six Americans and stuck his neck out by inviting them to stay in his own home. Four nervous consul employees spent 79 days in his sanctuary while two stayed at Ken Taylor’s residence. Besides providing them with food, shelter, clothes, real passports sent by our government, documents, maps and Scrabble, the Canadians scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets, even coached the six in sounding Canadian, eh (‘Toronto’ spoken like ‘piranha’).

Mendez was taken care of by the Embassy, met the Americans at the Sheardown house and convinced them to choose his ludicrous Hollywood scenario about Canadians scouting film locations in revolutionary Iran. (Hey, we would have just shot it in Scarborough!)

You won’t hear John Sheardown’s name in Argo. Born in Windsor, he served as a tail gunner in the Second World War. He broke both his legs bailing out of a crippled RCAF Halifax bomber over Britain, crawled to a pub and asked for a drink. As soon as he recovered, Sheardown was back flying missions over Germany. He’s the unsung hero of the real story, risking his life one more time.

Argo touts its authenticity and attention to period detail by showing newsreel footage and side-by-side photos of the events, plus the actors beside the real six, exact down to their moustaches. Don’t be fooled by appearances.

‘It’s going to take a miracle to get them out!’ No, what it took was Canadian passports. Enjoy the movie, but if you want to know what actually happened in January 1980 read the new book Argo by Antonio Mendez, or Our Man in Tehran (2010) by Robert Wright.

If you don’t mind a huge SPOILER ALERT, the story continues.

Tehran, January 27, 1980. Ken Taylor would never allow the six Americans to go to a bazaar. They were driven from John Sheardown’s home to the airport by an Iranian employee in a Canadian Embassy van. Tony Mendez was already at the airport. Along with a number of Canadians they all boarded a Swissair flight on a plane called “AARGAU”. There was a tense moment when the immigration official disappeared and came back with…a cup of tea.

“As long as we were Canadians, the rest of it is kind of irrelevant in terms of how things worked at the airport,” said Mark Lijek, one of the six, in Our Man In Tehran by Robert Wright.

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I find it very disappointing that my Dad John Sheardown didn’t even get an acknowledgement
in the movie Argo. He was the first to be contacted by the Americans and he hid them at his residence without regard for his own safety or the risk Zena Sheardown was taking when they hid them for months.

Hello Robin: I just saw the movie earlier today and have spent some time on the internet finding out the truth behind the scenes, so to speak. Your father and Zena were remarkable in their actions. I hope your father is comfortable in the veteran’s home and that Zena is doing alright. My own father ended up in a veteran’s home that we had to rescue him from last November and I certainly hope that your father is getting the excellent care and attention that he deserves. Lorna Jamison

Hi Lorna, Thank you so much for your kind comments. Unfortunately Dad passed away on December 30th 2012
at Ottawa Regional Hospital. He will be sadly missed by everyone that knew him. He was a great Dad and a true Canadian Hero. We had so many adventures together in foreign countries, some of them to this day still make me laugh so hard I cry. I do hope your dad is doing better now. I believe the care in some of these veteran’s homes could be called into question, no matter how good they claim to be. At least your dad is safe and sound now in your care.
All the best,
Robin Sheardown

Hello, Robin. I found this article while searching to learn more about the real events behind the film, having just watched it on an international flight recently. It was pretty obvious that quite a bit of artistic license was taken — it was TOO entertaining, and too cinematic with the dramatic climax and escape at the airport just as the Iranians are figuring out the truth.

I certainly sympathize with your disappointment in the omission of your father in the film — anyone in your shoes would feel the same way, and I wish it had been done differently. But I thought you might also appreciate my viewpoint in that I, like several others commenting here, knew nothing of the story or what had happened before I saw the film (in 1980, I was 10 – I remember the hostage crisis vividly, but not the rescue of the six fugitives). Therefore, I would never have been inspired to find out the truth about the story, your father, and the Canadian involvement in the rescue had the film never been made. Deep respect to you, your family, and everyone in Canada who worked hard to rescue them.

Yes, I understand your disappointment that you father who played such a significant part was omitted but please remember this is entertainment based on a true story NOT a documentary-I like to watch movies based on true story and get so mad and upset that it deviates from the real facts and then realize many times people aren’t creative enough to create something original. Yes, your dad should have been acknowledged in credits but just be appreciative that the important people to YOU, YOUR government and CBS film (due to being on TV so maybe more widely seen) did acknowledge your dad’s importance.

Why can’t they just make a movie without distorting the facts? After viewing the movie and then investigating it more, it feels like I’ve been ripped off by the “hollywood lies” added to what would have been a great story on it’s own. Thanks Canada.

I’m told by friends that worked on the film that the ending was an additional photography shoot because the first version of the film, with the more true to the actual events ending, bored audiences. So blame viewership for that one! I can’t say why the other discrepancies exist…

Thank you for reading an article from 10 years ago, but I have to disagree with blaming the test audiences for the many outright lies of “Argo”. Yes, there was a reshoot of the ridiculous ending to make it more exciting, but that’s not the real problem. “Argo” made the conscious choice to make up a fictional account of events. Hollywood told “an expert helping of white lies” (Anthony Lane, “New Yorker” magazine).
Yes, films based on real events often take creative liberties, but don’t boast about how “true” your story is. Hollywood doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good yarn. The bazaar and airport scenes are entirely made up. “So much of the movie is total fiction.” (Ken Taylor) The American diplomats were driven to the airport in a Canadian Embassy van. John Sheardown is not even mentioned in the film.
Is it okay to lie about history? I’ll let President Jimmy Carter have the final word:
“I saw the movie recently. I was taken aback by its distortion of what happened. Because almost everything that was heroic or courageous or innovative was done by Canada and not the United States.”

First of all, a HUGE THANK YOU to our friends to the north, Canada. Thanks for getting all of the Americans out of Iran. Second, I saw the movie yesterday, and while it was good, I also knew that parts were made up to increase the drama (especially the ending as the plane is leaving).

What disappoints me is that John Sheardown was not even mentioned in the movie, despite the fact that he played a large role in helping the Americans escape. I want to know why he was left out. While I know that Hollywood always takes liberties in movies like this one, please make sure that anyone who played a major role in a real-life situation should get what credit is due.

Thank you Sean, your comments mean a lot to my father and the family. I also saw the movie on opening night and I was also very disappointed that there was no mention of my father’s or Zena’s involvement hiding the “house guests” for close to three months. What is also not known, when my father and Zena left Iran, they lost everything, his house, furniture, clothing, Mercedes limousine and bank accounts. None of which he was ever reimbursed for. The only thing that concerned my father and Zena was the safe exfiltration of the “house guests” yet Hollywood felt they didn’t deserve a footnote at the the of the movie. How sad is that.

Sorry to hear that

What do you expect from hollywood

And every iranian in the movie was made out to be scary like a monster…even the lil ole ladies in the movies we acting scary and crazy

Spoiler alert

And the one iranian that helped the americans escapes to iraq in the movie…as if to say because of her goodness she couldnt stay in iran, surrounded by bad people

Thats hollywood and american politics in a nut shell…..everytng has to be black and white…….good versus evil

Thank you Robin Sheardown for replying to the article and especially a big thank you to your dad (and Zena) for everything they have done, both during the war and in rescuing the six Americans in 1979-80. I hope it is gratifying for you that the CBC picked up the story and the mayor has declared today, Nov. 10, John Sheardown Day in Windsor, Ontario. The recognition is well deserved. Nov. 10 was the very day when your father took in the “houseguests”. A number of American online publications (such as Slate and Screen Rant) have picked up the story and pointed out the glaring omissions in Argo. Mark Lijek himself has written a heartfelt comment about his gratitude (at slate.com) “But the real difference between Argo and what happened to us is what is not in the movie. The courage, warmth and sheer friendliness and humanity of our Canadian hosts is at the top of the list. This article is the first I have seen to mention John Sheardown, a true hero and perhaps the indispensable man in this entire adventure. He was our initial point of contact with the Canadians. His enthusiastic “why didn’t you call sooner?” may well have spelled the difference between our decision to accept his offer rather than continue on our own. The house we abandoned when we moved to John’s was raided four days after we left.”

Thank you Bernie, It was your article and what followed afterwards started everything to get the Mayor to issue the Proclamation for November 10th to be declared “John Sheardown Day” in Windsor. My dad was so pleased and surprised when he found out about the Proclamation with a big smile in his face he said “That is so wonderful that my home town would remember me”. I’m so glad he knew of this before he passed away.
Thanks again,

Perhaps the greatest falsehood in the film was the voice of Jlmmy Carter claiming that he got the Americans held captive out safely without violence and US prestige in tact.

Carter had sent in a combined military force to rescue the captives by force (violence) earlier. After a disastrous screwup at a staging point in Iran, the mission was aborted.

The captives were only released after Carter left office and Reagan became President. The Iranians had held them captive the whole time Carter was President to humiliate the US. Reagan graciously let Carter greet the captives when they returned to the US.

John you will always be remembered in our house, having worked with you and knowing a bit more than most of these people making wild comments. When you got the call from Bob Anders that the six were seeking safe heaven, you called certain of us and said lets go get them. They all showed up at your large residence and you sheltered 4 of the 6 for the remainder of the crisis. Coruse we had to wait fo two of them to be taken to the Ambassadors’ residence as he was missing in action, probably a blonde chick he had enamored for the evening. Your wife, Zena handled he situation like a pro keeping these US Citizens feed and what not. A lot cannot be told but you were not only a hero of Tehan you were also a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, shot down in WW2 and as you got sick in your 80s, even Veterans Affairs Canada made no effort to shelter you in the Perley Veterans Home until some frindly politicians and a lot of us Veterans bombarded them with urgent request for your request for a bed at the home. You are a True Hero of Tehran and the Second WW2. I appreciated the loan of your fiat 404 and the tux you gave me so I could attend a specia function at the British Embassy. Bravo Zulu and Per Adua Ad Astra.
John would never take the whole credit as there was a few more people in the Canadian Embassy that were never mentionned, lke other External Affairs Staff and the Military Police guards, but I was proud tos erve with John.

RIP old friend

Thank you Ed, finally some of the true facts are starting to come out, details of which I have known for years but have been unable to say. My dad has always said it was a team effort and everyone involved did what was asked of them without question. We all know what would have happened if the plan had been discovered. All of you risked your lives during this crisis without regard for your personal safety. like you say, all of the External Affairs Staff and the Military Police guards deserve credit for saving the lives of the “house guests” On behalf of a greatful Canadain I would like to thank all of you involved.


My husband and I just watched Argo. We loved it. My husband and I doubted that the last scene really happened so I set out to find out what was real and what was embellished. I started to scour the Internet. I am so disappointed that your father wasn’t mentioned in the movie. The real events are much more compelling. It truly was a team effort but your father and everyone else who assisted deserve recognition. Everyone put their life on the line to help the 6 Americans. Are there links to articles that detail what happened? I’d like to know how it was that the 6 ended up being split into 4 and 2, how did they end up with the Canadians. I hope you know that as the movie continues to do well, the truth about what really happened is coming out. We owe so much to those who put their lives at risk.

The writer of Argo just mentioned the Sheardowns in his acceptance speech. It’s too bad they couldn’t have given him proper credit in the movie though. I worked with your father Robin he was truly an amazing man. I feel blesses to have even gotten to meet him even it was just for short time in my life.

i recently saw the movie Argo and i thouht as a film it was very well done
however…the mistake a lot of its detractors make is forgetting that Art imitates life
why would you expect accuracy from a movie?

I’m glad to know the true story now and I salute the Taylors and Sheardowns for their heroism and courage. I’m sorry Mr. Sheardown’s role wasn’t acknowledged in the movie, but I’m sure it wasn’t intended as a personal slight, as frequently even true stories are modified for dramatic effect in movies or to simplify a complicated story. I think as a film it was brilliant, and it did stay true to the essential truths of the story, most of them, though unfortunately some were left out or distorted. It’s a shame but it didn’t ruin the movie for me. Still, thank-you to all the kind, brave Canadians who really did house and protect the American “houseguests” and help them escape. Robin, you have every right to be terribly proud of your father.

The movie was very entertaining. The real story, however, is even better. Getting through the airport was the easy part, apparently. The real risk was hiding the six Americans in your home for weeks beforehand. Thank you for the bravery, Canadians.

I just finished watching Argo and was immediately compelled to search for information on the brave and truly heroic Canadian “Hosts” and what had become of them. I remember when the American embassy was raided, I remember the hostages, but I am ashamed to admit that I have no memory of the 6 taken in by the Canadian’s. Nor did I know of the actions of the Canadian government and diplomats that really put themselves on the line for all Americans. I do, however, have clear memory of the rescue attempt by my government and the horrific way that ended. Why Hollywood needs to manipulate true life stories, and disrespect the real people portrayed in the stories, has always vexed me. I can’t imagine how keeping the film real to the facts could, in any way, lesson the quality. In fact, after reading all the comments, my whole attitude about Argo has changed. What a disappointment it always is to learn how messed up my country is. So, as an American citizen, I am sorry. As an American citizen, thank you Canada for stepping up when my government let us down.

the Americans also think they fought a war with the British in the war of 1812, when in fact it was Canadians

I do remember the hostage taking incident and how it was Canada who saved the day, the Americans had nothing to do with it.

I remember reading it in the paper, sorry I don’t remember the names, of those who were taken out, through our embassy. but I do remember it was a proud day for us all here in Canada

I didn’t see the movie I don’t intend to

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