Commentary in Canada on the film Argo winning the Best Picture Oscar focuses on the Ken Taylor/Canadian angle.

Who were the real heroes in all this, Canadian writers ask? Was it a CIA agent named Mendez or a small group of Canadian diplomats who risked their personal well-being to shelter their American colleagues?

Most Canadians want to say the latter, and many Canadians who reviewed the Oscars seemed to breathe sighs of relief when Ben Affleck managed to blurt out “…and I thank Canada” as he was rushing through his ritual Oscar night thank yous.

That “thank you” sort of made up for the short shrift Affleck gave the Canadian angle of the story in his film.

That’s the conventional Canadian take on Argo.

Some of us, however, think the real hero is neither Canadian nor American.

We think the real hero appeared only briefly in the very opening sequence, never to be mentioned again.

Just to remind you — if you saw the film — the opening sequence was the black and white news and archival footage scene-setter that explained how, in the early 1950s, British intelligence and the American CIA ousted a democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh.

The short sequence explains how the coup plotters re-installed the Shah Reza Pahlavi in power, and how that Shah’s regime became authoritarian and repressive, and was ultimately overthrown by the revolution that installed the Ayatollahs.

The deposed Mosaddegh does not get even as much screen time as the Canadian Ken Taylor in Argo. But to some of us, he’s the most memorable character, and the most important.

The reason the United States and Britain were so anxious to get rid of the Mosaddegh was, you guessed it: oil.

In the early 1950s Mosaddegh had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had totally controlled the country’s petroleum resource and which shared much less than half of the total take with Iran.

The British were, of course, dead set against this from the beginning, and instituted a boycott against the nationalized Iranian oil.

As for the Americans, while Democrat Harry Truman was in the White House they tended to see the elected Iranian government as legitimate, moderate, and democratic, and scoffed at what Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson saw as the British “obsession” with overthrowing Mosaddegh.

Then the Republicans came to power, with a more black-and-white view of the world. To them, Mosaddegh was a crypto-communist, at best. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed the Iranian Prime Minister had to be removed from power quickly, before the Communist Party lurking on his left flank, took advantage of the situation. He put the still-young CIA, headed by his younger brother Allen, to work on the case, armed with a special budget of $1,000,000.

The man behind the actual coup was the Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s Middle East station chief, who spread hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes around to get Iranian army officers and politicians onside.

Roosevelt, together with his British partners, also worked on the then-young Shah (who had been installed during World War Two when the British deposed his pro-Axis father) to bend the constitution and help depose the legitimate Prime Minister.

The rest is, as they say, history.

And the closest that history has come to being depicted by Hollywood was those few moments at the beginning of Argo.

The Iranian coup was a crucially important event for Western intelligence, in particular for the CIA.

Emboldened by this success the CIA went on, in 1954, to oust President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, whose sin against America was that his land reforms threatened the holdings of United Fruit — which owned nearly half the land in that Central American country.

Later, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the U.S. military and CIA got very active in Central America and the Caribbean basin.

They failed to overthrow Fidel Castro, in Cuba, in 1961.

But they had no trouble deposing Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic, in propping up dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, and in sponsoring and training the bloody-minded “Contras” who destabilized the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, at the cost of thousands of lives.

The CIA’s main partners in the region were the utterly brutal “death squads,” whose many documented victims included thousands of children.

Guatemalan films have depicted the 1954 coup in that country, but so far it has not interested Hollywood.

Some of the CIA’s later shenanigans in Central America — in Nicaragua and in El Salvador — did make it onto Hollywood’s screens.

The 1982 film Under Fire, starring big names such as Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman, depicts the last days of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza’s regime. Franklin Roosevelt had famously said of Somoza’s father: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch!”

The 1986 film Salvador features the requisite American existential hero, a photojournalist portrayed by James Woods, but is also openly critical of U.S.-supported death squads. The film includes a fictionalized portrayal of a CIA-supported death squads’ murder of four American “liberation” Catholic aid workers.

Other Hollywood portrayals of U.S. cloak and dagger operations that were aimed at undermining democratically elected governments include 1982’s Missing, directed by the Greek-French director Costa-Gavras and starring Jack Lemmon as a grieving father and Sissy Spacek as an angry widow. The story is set against the backdrop of the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile.

There were also the Viet Nam War films, which (sometimes, at any rate) portrayed the horror and futility of that U.S. military adventure there. Those include Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and, more recently, Platoon.

Stacked up against all of those Hollywood efforts, Argo might seem like thin gruel.

It is entertaining, even funny at times. But it affords little insight into the true nature of the Iranian Revolution and the forces that drove it. And its broad brush stroke portrayals of Iranians seem like caricatures, for the most part.

Argo must be commended, however, for including that short sequence with Mosaddegh at the very beginning.

The folks who made Argo use the overthrow of Mosaddegh as — to borrow some screenwriter’s jargon — the “inciting incident” of the whole film. It was the spark that, more than a quarter century later, lit the conflagration of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. And that Revolution led to the hostage taking which led to the events portrayed in Argo.

There was no room in this film to portray the anti-Mosaddegh coup as the inciting incident of the CIA’s (and its friends’ and allies’) long career in blood, gore, bribery and manipulation — in other words in everything that went into the black art of “regime change.”

We’re still waiting for that film. 


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...