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The filmmakers behind HBO’s Hostages didn’t know that their four-part documentary would premiere in the middle of the second week of anti-government protests in Iran stemming from the death of a young woman in state police custody. They were probably relatively confident, though, that no matter when Hostages debuted, it would have immediacy.
The series examines the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981 in full context, before and after the 444-day international crisis that represented a historical linchpin event for both countries. It was integral to the 40+ years Iran has now spent in diplomatic isolation from much of the West, an illustration of the sometimes catastrophic consequences of even a populist revolution. And it was integral to the 1980 presidential election in the United States, an election that ushered in the version of the political right as we now understand it, as well as an illustration of the potentially catastrophic consequences of interventionist meddling in international politics.
Directors: Joshua Bennett, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre, Abbas Motlagh and Sam Pollard
Hostages is an impressively thorough and balanced handling of an event that feels dangerously consigned to footnote status — “You remember, the thing from Argo!” — and actually connects to entirely too many things in today’s headlines.
Directed by Joshua Bennett, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre, Abbas Motlagh and Sam Pollard — much of the team from HBO’s equally comprehensive Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children — Hostages begins in the cosmopolitan Tehran of 1977. It was a place that gave the impression of affluence and progressive values — and, because the United States was deeply involved in the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, we ignored signs that Iran was a fracturing country with a simmering religious base, economic inequality, a disgruntled young population and, over in France, an exiled religious leader undermining the existing government. The shah was overthrown in early 1979 and sought cancer treatment in the United States in the fall of 1979. On November 4, 1979, 52 American civilians were taken hostage at the American embassy by a group of student revolutionaries calling themselves Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line.
With great detail and a historian’s eye for interwoven context and interconnected consequences, Hostages depicts how the taking of the embassy — initially planned as a 48-hour occupation/protest — ultimately lasted for over a year, presenting opportunities for Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Ronald Reagan in the U.S., and becoming a presidency-ending crisis for Jimmy Carter and a long-term destabilizing force in the Middle East.
The most immediately notable thing about Hostages is the depth of the documentary’s talking head roster. There are extensive and chillingly candid interviews with at least a half-dozen of the hostages, ranging from life-long diplomats, some of whom had deep personal connections to Iran, to new arrivals like Marine Paul Lewis, who had arrived in Tehran literally the day before. There are representatives of the American media and officials from Jimmy Carter’s inner circle.
Even more impressive is how Hostages, especially in its first two episodes, keeps its focus on what was happening in Tehran, which of course includes the American hostages but also several of the Iranian student revolutionaries — like erudite leader Ebrahim Asgharzadeh and the still-calculating Massoumeh Ebtekar, whose perfect English from a childhood spent in the United States made her one of the public faces of the crisis. The directors feature a number of Iranian political figures from before and after the 1979 revolution, a variety of native journalists and even Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first elected president of the Islamic Republic.
This is a story that’s set primarily in Iran and Hostages doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an outsider or voyeuristic perspective — a relief since the imposing of American values and ideology in the region is already at the root of the crisis.
I’m sure some viewers will feel that it is, in fact, too even-handed when it comes to the student revolutionaries/hostage takers. There’s no doubt that in the segments with Asgharzadeh, Ebtekar and a few of their colleagues, the interviewers accept certain statements regarding motivations, regrets and especially the willingness to remain part of a situation that went so far astray from its original intents. But when it comes to the moment-by-moment breakdown of the conditions faced by the hostages, the hostages themselves consistently get the last word.
Still, there’s something chilling and unsettling about how matter-of-fact Asgharzadeh and Ebtekar are. Some audiences will feel that that sensation of discomfort is, in and of itself, a form of judgment from the filmmakers; others will crave a The Last Dance-style virtual confrontation in which former hostages like Michael Metrinko and John Limbert, both still filled with resentment for wholly logical reasons, could watch the current interviews with Ebtekar and give their thoughts on her being re-platformed in this way. I don’t think Hostages tries telling you that you’re wrong if you hate Ebtekar; it just doesn’t tell you that you need to.
There’s an attempt by the filmmakers to differentiate between the students, their objectives and their justifiable anger directed at American imperialism. U.S. policy in Iran impacted 75 years of Iranian history, going back to the CIA-backed coup of 1953 and the repressive, theocratic leadership that took over the country and whose successors continue to stifle dissent and may be facing a reckoning as we speak. Whether or not you feel that attempt is apparent enough, it’s definitely informed by and informative of the headlines of the moment.
Headlines, past and present, are essential to Hostages because the documentary depicts the Iran hostage crisis as “the first American foreign policy crisis that was fully televised,” as one subject puts it. It was a thoroughly filmed catastrophe at every stage — from the glowing depictions of the shah during his American visits, to the way Ted Koppel and ABC’s nightly coverage pioneered much of the language of our 21st century news cycle, to protestors who learned to save their passion for when TV cameras were running, to the propagandized events like the hostages’ Christmas celebrations.
There’s so much footage, much of it featuring the talking heads in their youth, that the directors are able to avoid anything resembling filler. There’s some map-based animation to make sure we’re situated within the sprawling embassy compound and what looks to be some new footage used mostly for transitions between scenes. But most of what’s here is original archival material and new interviews.
The result is the rare recent documentary series where my primary complaint doesn’t relate to a misguided running time. These episodes run full hours and there’s nothing I would either want to trim or pad out. There always could have been room for more interviews or additional perspectives, but what’s in Hostages is substantive, wide-ranging and inclusive in a way not every telling of the story would have been.
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Warner Bros. Discovery