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Recommended: Hostages on HBO

The Iranian hostage crisis gets an abundance of necessary context in HBO's stellar documentary series.
  • Photo: HBO
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    Hostages | HBO
    Four-Episode Documentary Series

    What's Hostages About?

    A four-part documentary exploring the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, Hostages dives into the complex relationship between the U.S. and Iran throughout the 20th century and the year-long stand-off between the two countries over the hostages being held in the American embassy in Tehran. It includes interviews with the former hostages, as well as some of the Iranian revolutionaries who carried out the embassy siege.

    Who's involved?

    • Al Golacinski, Kathryn Koob, Paul Lewis, John Limbert, Michael Metrinko, and Victor Tomseth, who are just a handful of the 52 American men and women at the American embassy in Tehran who were taken hostage by revolutionaries in November of 1979 and held captive for 444 days.
    • Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, the Iranian political activist who, as a student in 1979, was a leader of the group who took the Americans hostage, actually planning the raid of the embassy.
    • Massoumeh Ebtekar, an American-educated woman who became the spokesperson for the Iranian revolutionaries for the duration of the hostage crisis.
    • Mohsen Sazegara, who at the time was a government official of the Islamic Republic of Iran who later became a political dissident.
    • Chris Matthews, the longtime MSNBC newsman who served as a speechwriter in the Jimmy Carter administration.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    How exactly do Americans remember the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — as the violent action of an enemy nation in a part of the world we've chalked up to being forever war-torn? What kind of context do we have for the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Iran in the 20th century? Have only the bullet points — Jimmy Carter's failure, the sinister Ayatollah Khomeini, something about the movie Argo — survived?

    Ironically, one point of agreement between the former hostages and the former perpetrators is that Americans don't have a full appreciation of the countries' shared history. "If you ask Americans, 'where did the problems start?' they'll tell you the original sin was in 1979 with the hostage crisis," says ex-hostage John Limbert in the opening minutes of the documentary. "But things go much deeper and the ties go much deeper." Later, we see archival footage of Massoumeh Ebtekar, the mouthpiece for the Iranian hostage-takers, as she talks about one of the goals of their operation: "We felt we had an opportunity to help the American people to understand that they're not well informed about the consequences of the actions of their government in Iran." They're not 100% in agreement with another, but they both speak to a need for a broader understanding of the Iranian hostage crisis, what led to it, and how it continues to echo in the relations between both countries today. Hostages does an excellent job of providing a rich and layered context for an event that's been flattened by history.

    One of the great virtues of Hostages is its length. At four parts — two hour-long episodes that will air on Wednesday, September 27th and two more on Thursday the 28th — directors Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh, Maro Chermayeff, and Sam Pollard are able to explore the events in all their complexity. Rather than drill down into the minutiae of the siege itself, the filmmakers go heavy on context. The first episode gives a picture of pre-revolution Iran, an opulent and increasingly westernized monarchy under the America-friendly leadership of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. A polarizing global figure, the Shah was a symbol of Iran's potential as a westernized beacon in the Middle East, but also a figure of repression who was hated by an Iranian underclass who had not felt the benefits of his extravagance. The second episode details the United States' covert involvement in the 1953 coup that unseated Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh after he'd attempted to nationalize the country's oil industry away from British interests. Piece by piece, Hostages assembles a more complete picture of the Iran situation and sets the stage for the storming of the embassy.

    Hostages boasts an array of interviews from journalists — including Lesley Stahl and Chris Matthews — and state officials, but at the center of the project are interviews with both the hostages and the perpetrators. While still obviously haunted by the events of 1979-80, the former hostages speak with great fondness of their early days in Iran and even of their fascination with being in Tehran while revolutionary history was happening around them. There's a candor that borders on folksiness to some of them that is genuinely surprising.

    The Iranians in the film offer a broad range of perspectives. Some, like Ebtekar, who has worked in Iranian government in the years since, becoming Vice President of Iran for Women and Family Affairs in 2017, stand by their actions as a necessary effort to open the world's eyes to the United States' sins. Others have since become disillusioned with the Iranian government and regret throwing in with Khomeini after the revolution.

    Here again the four-part documentary structure allows for a multitude of perspectives and angles on the events. The filmmakers interview Iranian women who saw the revolution as a progressive movement against a corrupt Shah only to be betrayed by a new regime that restricted women's freedoms. We get a lot of insight into the Carter administration's struggles to find a solution to the crisis, as Carter was reluctant to make any move that might get the hostages killed. The filmmakers also depict the reactionary mood in America, a country that was not used to getting pushed around on the national stage, leading inevitably to the election of Ronald Reagan as president.

    Hostages does a tremendous job painting a wide canvas. The filmmakers don't seem concerned with making any ideological declarations about the Iranian hostage takers or America's prolonged effort to get their people back, and this allows a rich and complicated story to be told from as many angles as possible.

    Pairs well with

    • Attica, the 2021 Showtime documentary account of the famed Attica prison riots, another moment in American history that deserved to have its full and complicated story told.
    • MLK/FBI, director Sam Pollard's illuminating documentary about the revered civil rights leader and the American establishment's dogged effort to discredit him. (Stream on Hulu.)
    • Argo, if only to see the glossy Hollywood take on the Iranian hostage crisis and compare notes. (Stream on Netflix)

  • Hostages
    Premieres on HBO and HBO Max Sept. 29, 2022 at 9:00 PM ET.
    Starring: Lesley Stahl and Chris Matthews.
    Directed by: Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh, Maro Chermayeff, and Sam Pollard.

    TOPICS: Hostages, HBO, Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh, Chris Matthews, Lesley Stahl, Maro Chermayeff, Sam Pollard