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Iran is a study in contrasts. It is a place wedded to simplicity and to its ancient traditions, yet rhinoplasties and sex reassignment surgeries are commonplace there. It’s a youth-dominated culture (around 70 percent of the population is under 30), yet it’s one of the oldest civilizations in the Middle East. And our own country’s mercurial relationship with the Persian nation goes back generations. One of the darkest chapters in that shared history took place in 1979 during the hostage crisis in Tehran, which lasted well over a year. And that is where writer-director Robert Stone places the central narrative of American Experience’s Taken Hostage: what led to the crisis and how its legacy stains our nations’ current relationship.
On November 4, 1979, armed Iranian college students ambushed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats, members of the military, and civilians hostage. The world watched over the next 444 days as the relationship between our two countries—which was once amicable—devolved into bitterness and mutual mistrust that simmers to this day.
Taken Hostage takes viewers on a thoughtful, impressively researched journey from when the US and Iran were allies to the tattered remains of its current relationship—and how this hostage crisis upended any diplomatic foreign policy with Iran.
Robert Stone, whose fearless plunge into his subject rivals anything produced by Ken Burns, takes his time with this examination. Featuring interviews with journalists, former military, and those who endured the crisis firsthand, Stone allows the film to unfurl at a steady pace. The result is a powerful, measured look at a traumatic event, yes, but also the uneven road that led us to it. Stone offers a thoughtful and confident examination of two bickering countries and the innocent people stuck in the middle.
Taken Hostage, as powerful a piece of documentary filmmaking as you’re likely to see in these last months of 2022, sheds some light on the delicate dance we have with the Middle East. It also shows us that as long as Iran remains an energy superpower, the dance is far from over.
Also from PBS
Showdown with Iran is available at PBS.org.
In 2002, President George W. Bush included Iran in his now-famous “axis of evil” speech (the others being North Korea and Iraq). That speech put the oil-rich and nuclear-capable Middle Eastern country on blast. Frontline’s Showdown with Iran, from 2007, examines how the nation, which has a robust and well-funded military, has elbowed its way into prominence on the world stage.
Showdown is, strangely, somewhat dated and wholly evergreen. Our relationship with Iran is still nonexistent: No diplomatic ties exist. Frontline’s documentary is a time capsule of where we were and, potentially, where we are headed.