Passing reference in ‘Argo’ rankles New Zealand

The State Department credited New Zealand’s embassy with aiding in the protection and escape of six Americans.
Jimmy Carter Library and Museum/Associated Press
The State Department credited New Zealand’s embassy with aiding in the protection and escape of six Americans.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Thirteen minutes into the Oscar-winning movie ­‘‘Argo,’’ CIA agent Tony Mendez asks supervisor Jack O’Donnell what happened to a group of Americans when the US Embassy was stormed in Tehran.

‘‘The six of them went out a back exit,’’ O’Donnell tells Mendez, played by Ben Affleck. ‘‘Brits turned them away. Kiwis turned them away. Canadians took them in.’’

That’s the only mention of New Zealand in ‘‘Argo,’’ but it is rankling Kiwis five months after the film was released in the South Pacific nation. Even Parliament has expressed its dismay, passing a motion stating that Affleck, who also directed the movie, ‘‘saw fit to mislead the world about what actually happened.’’


New Zealand joins a list of other countries, including Iran and Canada, that have felt offended by the fictionalized account of how a group of Americans was furtively sheltered and secreted out of Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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The strong reaction in New Zealand indicates the country remains insecure about its own culture, said Steve Matthewman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Auckland. People are prone to bouts of unwarranted outrage when somebody from abroad says something bad about the country, he said, and simpering enjoyment when they say something good.

‘‘It’s touched a really raw nerve,’’ Matthewman said. ‘‘We do seem in New Zealand to be oversensitive to how the rest of the world perceives us.’’

The movie’s New Zealand reference may not be totally fair but has an element of truth.

Some in New Zealand have taken those words — ‘‘Kiwis turned them away’’ — as implying the country did nothing to help.


In fact, a US State Department document dated Feb. 6, 1980, says ‘‘four Embassies — Canadians, British, Swedish and New Zealand — were involved in their protection and escape.’’ The document was posted online last fall by the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.

And published interviews indicate diplomats from Britain and New Zealand did help by briefly sheltering the Americans, visiting, and bringing them food, even driving them to the airport when they left.

Yet those interviews also indicate that both countries considered it too risky to shelter the Americans for long. That left the Canadians shouldering the biggest risk by taking them in.

Lawmaker Winston Peters, who brought last week’s uncontested motion before Parliament, said New Zealanders are unfairly portrayed as ‘‘a bunch of cowards,’’ an impression that would be given to millions who watch the movie.

‘‘It’s a diabolical misrepresentation of the acts of courage and bravery, done at significant risk to themselves, by New Zealand diplomats,’’ he said.


Affleck could not be reached for comment this week.

During Oscar media interviews last month, Affleck told reporters: ‘‘Let me just start by saying I love New Zealand, and I love New Zealanders.’’ He added that ‘‘I think that it’s tricky. You walk a fine line. You are doing a historical movie and naturally you have to make some creative choices about how you are going to condense this into a three-act structure.’’

But Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, who won the adapted screenplay Oscar, did catch some flak from critics for taking major liberties, especially a heart-stopping airport finale that had gun-wielding Iranian Revolutionary Guards chasing the Swissair plane down the tarmac, with the plane lifting off just in the nick of time. (In reality, the airport exit went smoothly.)