A half-hour or so into a big new miniseries premiering on cable tonight, an actor doing a pretty good portrayal of the Shah of Iran says thoughtfully to an aide, "Carter is not a fool. I first thought he would be."
Unfortunately, it seems apparent President Jimmy Carter lost his 1980 bid for re-election because American voters thought he was a fool, largely for his inability to free 53 Americans held hostage in Iran for more than a year.
"Iran: Days of Crisis," at 8 o'clock tonight and tomorrow on the TNT service, is a dramatization of the hostage episode and tends to portray the former president in concurrence with the Shah's opinion. No fool, he comes across (as portrayed by George Grizzard) as an earnest victim of historical passions which everyone involved underestimated -- including the Shah.
Indeed, in one scene tonight Carter is seen flatly predicting the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, after reluctantly agreeing at his aides' urging to accept the ailing Shah into the U.S.
Did Carter really ask his staff, "What are you guys going to advise when our embassy is overrun and our people taken hostage?" The network asserts this film has "an unimpeachable degree of authenticity" because producer Gerald Rafshoon was intimately familiar with events, having served during the period as President Carter's communications director.
However, the film does not really address the issue of whether Republican presidential challenger Ronald Reagan or his people made a deal with the Iranians to delay the relase of the hostages until after the election.
And for all the drama of the real events, "Iran: Days of Crisis" plays on the sluggish side, while also providing a refresher course in a frustrating chapter of American history. As with most docudramas, it is easy to question the portrayal of some events, particularly the scenes with the Shah (played by physically similar Daniel Gelin), his wife (Marianne Borgo, also a good look-alike) and aides.
A mix of actual newsreel footage of public disturbances and re-creations (actually filmed on the Greek island of Rhodes) also shows the difficulties of mixing the real with the staged. There's obvious passion in the real scenes, and just as obviously a bunch of extras running around in the re-creations.
Especially flat is the enactment of the crucial street demonstration in which the Shah's troops open fire on fundamentalist protesters of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
What works best, however, is the personal story that weaves the historical elements together, as Arliss Howard is very believable as American diplomat John Limbert. His story -- married to an Iranian woman (Alice Krige), speaking the language and having a sister-in-law who comes down on the side of the Ayatollah -- brings the events down to the Everyman level.