OTTAWA – A screening and reception for the Hollywood film “Argo” at the Canadian embassy in Washington last fall was such a hot ticket, people complained afterwards about not getting invited.
The star-studded, $23,000 affair appeared to be well worth it for film execs and embassy officials, who considered the event a success both for public diplomacy and marketing purposes.
“Argo,” which spotlights role of the CIA during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, heads into this weekend’s Academy Awards with 7 nominations, including best picture.
But the movie has attracted criticism in some quarters for appearing to give short shrift to the role Canadians played in hiding six U.S. citizens for just over two months and helping ensure their passage out of the country.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press reveal the film company Time Warner considered the October event a “Canada love-in” which helped mitigate some of the bad press the movie had received.
They covered $13,000 of the cost, which included movie theatre and shuttle bus rentals, as well as the price tag associated with getting the film’s stars, including Ben Affleck and John Goodman, to attend.
The Canadian government picked up the rest of the tab.
A guest list originally estimated at 100 people swelled to more than 300, the documents said.
About 240 showed, including several senior U.S. journalists, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and the then-director of the CIA, David Petraeus.
“Our initial target audience was VIP contacts from media, culture, Iran file, State Department and key trade contacts,” said a debrief on the screening event sent to Canadian missions around North America.
“Suffice to say we hit influencers and decision-makers, drawn no doubt by the celebrities in attendance! Big scores.”
Most of the guest list for the event — released under the Access to Information Act — was censored.
Media coverage of the event was extensive, with many paying attention to Affleck’s remarks on the role — or lack thereof — for Canadians in the film.
“This is a story through one man’s perspective, through the perspective of the CIA,” Affleck reportedly told the crowd. “But one of the more beautiful aspects of it is that this is about the Canadians who stepped up.”
He also singled out Ken Taylor, who was Canada’s man in Tehran at the time and who co-ordinated the hostage escape efforts.
Taylor was invited to the D.C. event after being left off the guest list for the Toronto premiere.
In a speech to university students last week, Taylor noted the film took a few liberties with history.
“After I saw the movie I decided that I did bring one particular skill to this movie: That was opening and closing a door,” Taylor said, referring to the relatively small role he seems to play in the film.
“We could go on but the amusing side is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he’s talking about.”
The October event came ahead of the embassy’s well-received inauguration day bash for U.S. President Barack Obama in January.
Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer noted at the “Argo” premiere that there’s a misconception the building was given to Canada in connection with the government’s role in the hostage crisis.
In fact, it was purchased the year before.
While events in Washington often capture a great deal of attention, budgets for such displays of public diplomacy have been slashed heavily in recent years.
In 2006, the newly elected Harper government pulled back $12 million in planned increases to public diplomacy funding and the cuts have continued.
For example, in 2004-2005, the Canadian embassy in Japan had a public diplomacy budget of $186,000, according to a 2008 evaluation of the mission.
In 2007-2008, it was less than half that, at $65,000.
Data published on the department of Foreign Affairs website suggests the “diplomacy and public advocacy” component of their budget is being cut by $65 million this year.
The result is embassies making corporate connections with private partners for marquee events, like Time Warner for the “Argo” premiere and RIM, among others, for the inauguration day party.
The department has also been encouraging diplomats to try out newer forms of outreach, permitting ambassadors to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook.