Documentaries often succeed through their attention to detail, something Our Man in Tehran outwardly possesses in its weaving together of contemporary interviews, archival footage, and a perpetually dramatic score in order to offer a pulsating take on U.S. relations with Iran in the late 1970s and early ’80s. However, directors Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein use these elements less as an inspired fusion for compelling historicism than a template to flex domestic muscle, with Canadian and U.S. camaraderie being the film’s implicit focus via a litany of talking heads that become simply data points for the filmmakers to maneuver as they see fit, in search of a history that emanates from purely Western political philosophies. Never is there an Iranian perspective on the proceedings, giving Our Man in Tehran the jingoistic bent its title implies.
Ken Taylor is the film’s surrogate protagonist, a real-life version of Victor Garber’s character in Argo. Each film is based on the events surrounding a 1980 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where six workers were taken hostage. Taylor facilitated the escape, but he also spent many years as the Canadian ambassador to Iran; he relies less on data than intuition, remarking how he could guestimate the state of the economy by keeping tabs on “how much caviar was sold at the bar” on any given night. That’s a joke on the Iranian economy’s skyrocketing status due to oil prices, which also prompted an estimable boom within Iranian culture, creating a riff between clerics and Westernized Iran, and catalyzing the power-hungry motives of then King of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, known more tersely as the Shah.
The information throughout Our Man in Tehran comes from the horse’s mouth via decades-later testimonies of those embroidered within the events, but the filmmakers resort to stock, pacifying dramatic tactics throughout, such as having a fire gently roaring behind William Daugherty, a former C.I.A. operative who reassures that the Iranian people “were not hostile to the American government” at this historical point. The sound of burning wood and the film’s score are heard alongside Daugherty’s voice, which demonstrates how dedicated the filmmakers are to carefully balancing audio tracks in order to mask the forged properties of a bogus historicism that allows only white voices to speak for the psychology behind a critical turning point in Iranian world diplomacy.
Perhaps the film’s most egregious error is its haphazard deployment of B-roll footage that appears and vanishes as if matter of factly illustrating the accompanying voiceover rather than having been carefully selected. When an ambassador speaks about the dangers of the Mehrabad International Airport, warning that “you do not want to tangle with those people,” the filmmakers show random footage of “those people,” cluttered and seemingly chaotic. In the latter part of the film, the rescue mission’s specifics are detailed in a manner that focuses on peculiar circumstances of fortune, as in the airport guard who “was taking a tea break” at a key moment, thus allowing the hostages to escape. When foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger concludes that Iran operated under a “my way or the highway” mentality and “that’s the way Iran was run and the way it’s still run,” the film’s switch to a lamentful piano track revels in the nationalistic warmth suggested by such broad-strokes essentializing. None of these speakers offer more than platitudinal sound bites, like “people lose sight of what a hero really is,” or “this wasn’t a movie, it was real life.” But Our Man in Tehran is a movie, trying desperately to seem as if it isn’t.