I know that many Americans at the time shared my anger and frustration. It was in the news pretty much every day. Nightly reports on an ABC-TV show that became “Nightline” fueled the anguished emotions that only piled on the anger and shame many Americans felt when Vietnam fell just four years earlier. What provoked this new nightmare that seemed to come out of nowhere?
Although of course it didn’t. The crisis over the Iranians holding 53 Americans hostage was only the climactic act in a drama that had been unfolding for decades, and it is one of the bitterest ironies of the modern era that even given all the resources and immediacy of modern media, Americans knew it. little of this history in 1979, and perhaps still not.
Therefore Robert Stone‘s two-part, four-hour documentary “Taken Hostage” (airing Nov. 14-15 on PBS, then on PBS streaming) is such a welcome corrective. It is the second of two documentaries about the hostage crisis to hit American television this season; the first, the four hours”hostages“, aired on HBO in September. Both films are worth your time. In some ways, “Hostages” offers a better, more detailed account of those painful 444 days, in part because it devotes nearly all of its four hours to the subject. But as Brian Tallerico’s review of the show noted, its first hour offers only a very sparse account of the backstory of the crisis.That’s what makes the first two hours of Stone’s film so important and revealing by comparison: It’s the best, most comprehensive and illuminating documentary, I have seen how US actions against Iran from the 1950s onwards led to the tragedy that would involve both countries in 1979.
The key figure early on is Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a man revered by many Iranians. Iran had emerged relatively unscathed from World War II, although its vast oil reserves were controlled by the British. After coming to power in 1951, Mossadegh moved to nationalize the oil industry, a change with both economic and symbolic value and one almost universally supported by Iranians. Mossadegh made history by going to the United Nations to argue that countries like his control their own resources, a bold proposal that resulted in him being named Time magazine’s man of the year.