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February 19, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

If we must have TV movies based on harrowing real-life events, let them all be as good as Hostages, an account of the kidnapping, imprisonment, torture, and sub-sequent release of six civilians held in Lebanon during the late 1980s and early ’90s.

With the crispness of a fictional thriller, Hostages in its opening minutes shows us how the first of this group of hostages were taken prisoner in 1986 by members of the Muslim fundamentalist group the Hezbollah. They included Irish college teacher Brian Keenan (Ciaran Hinds of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) and British TV journalist John McCarthy (Colin Firth of Valmont).

Held in a dank Beirut cell, blindfolded, manacled, and nearly naked, McCarthy and Keenan later join three Americans: Associated Press Middle East bureau chief Terry Anderson (JFK‘s Jay O. Sanders); Thomas Sutherland (Witness‘ Josef Sommer), acting dean of agriculture at the American University in Beirut; and a Beirut school director, Frank Reed (played by veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton). Terry Waite (White Hunter, Black Heart‘s Conrad Asquith), special envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, would be put in with the remaining hostages in 1991 after having already been held for four years.

The political reasons for the kidnappings are given their due — Hostages is not out to demonize the Middle East — and there is a strong suggestion that the Reagan administration was knowingly dealing arms to Iraq in return for the release of the hostages. But director David Wheatley, working from a script by Bernard MacLaverty, is most concerned with depicting the agony endured by these innocent men.

Cut off from the world, regularly punched and kicked by their kidnappers for no apparent reason and left to live in a filthy room, the hostages comfort one another but also get on one another’s nerves. The worst thing this TV movie could have done would be to turn the hostages into bland martyrs or ennobled victims. Instead, the script grants these men their individual, prickly personalities.

What the prisoners cannot see, or get only occasional glimpses of, are the efforts of relatives and friends to get them set free. Two of the smallest roles in Hostages go to the movie’s biggest stars: Kathy Bates (Fried Green Tomatoes, Misery) portrays Anderson’s sister, Peggy Say, while Natasha Richardson (The Comfort of Strangers) is McCarthy’s girlfriend, Jill Morrell. They grieve, videotape messages to the hostages’ captors, and make pleas to governments on both sides, but as far as the elements of the drama are concerned, they’re peripheral figures. This is one reason why fact-based TV movies are always awkward affairs — the presence of familiar, famous faces throws off the balance of sympathy the script may try to maintain.

Hostages is a coproduction of HBO Showcase and Britain’s Granada Television; unlike most TV movies for commercial American networks, this one doesn’t have to shrink from harsh language and violence and thus gives the impression of being that much more ”real.” In the end, of course, the lives of these men during this period are unknowable to anyone but the hostages themselves. Hostages is based on interviews with some of them, and the film employs the usual TV-movie tricks of juggling the chronology of various events and changing the names of minor characters. Hostages is, in this sense, as misleading as any other true-life TV movie. But on a deeper level, the uniformly quiet, passionate acting and the power of its drama give it a thoroughly redeeming force. A-

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