March 8, 2017
The Three Hikers (2015)
Grade: 50/100

Director: Natalie Avital
Stars: Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal

What it's about. A first-person documentary about the Iranian imprisonment of three American hikers who had errantly crossed over Iran's border from Kurd-controlled Iraq.

Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Joshua Fattal are white young adults from middle-class families. They are liberal activists and world tourists. Shourd and Bauer are a couple, and Fattal is their mutual friend. After their unknowing crossing, they were taken prisoner by Iranian border guards on in July 2009. They were soon taken to Evin Prison in Tehran, and held indefinitely pending charges of spying for America.

The families of the three young Americans quickly formed a united front and endlessly and effectively advocated for their release. The imprisonment drew international attention, and eventually President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to free the trio.

But the U.S. had ended diplomatic relations with Iran following the 1979 coup that made Iran an ultra-conservative Islamic theocracy. The U.S. Embassy was seized, and its staff was held as hostages for the rest of Jimmy Carter's term. Fast forward to 2009, and the three Americans, obviously innocent of any charges against them, were effectively hostages to be used as bargaining chips by Iran in negotiations with the West. Such diplomacy was conducted through the Sultan of Oman, the only local nation highly regarded by both the U.S. and Iran.

As hostages, the three Americans were treated poorly. Shourd was held in isolation for most of her captivity. Bauer and Fattal shared a small cell. Bauer was eventually beaten by a guard, though not severely. The three potentially faced hanging, a sentence given to countless convicted in Iran of lesser crimes.

After more than a year in prison, Shourd was bailed out by the Sultan of Oman. The 5 billion rial bond was essentially a ransom. Now reunited with her family, Shourd used her newfound celebrity status to ceaselessly advocate for the release of Fattal and Bauer.

The two were put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Nonetheless, a few months later, they were also bailed out for 5 billion rial each, with the ransom likely paid either directly or indirectly by the Sultan of Oman. They had spent more than two years in prison.

Since obtaining their freedom, Shourd and Bauer married. Fattal became partners with his former middle school sweetheart, and they have had a child. Due to the trauma they endured, Shourd and Bauer currently advocate prison reform.

How others will see it. You will find a box of Kleenex handy while watching this sad, sad film. It does have a happy ending, though, if you can finish it. The three American hikers were imprisoned for political reasons, and politics can become a fun house of mirrors for every viewer to have a slightly different perspective. But the film does not dwell on politics. It is all about the ordeal endured by the trio and their families.

How I felt about it. In some ways, this is an impressive documentary. It has the extensive participation of all three of the prisoners, along with appropriately smaller contributions by their mothers, fathers, and siblings. Shane Bauer's father, Al Bauer, is particularly sympathetic, and his compassion for his unjustly imprisoned son is undeniably genuine.

And, yes, the film does include a brief talking head appearance by Sean Penn, two-time Best Actor Oscar winner and humanitarian, who explains to us what we already know; namely that Iranian President Ahmadinejad was little more than a sock puppet of the nation's theocratic ruler, Ali Khamenei.

However, the documentary moves too slowly at times, as if it is a microcosm of the vast tedium endured by the prisoners themselves. The score is generally tactful, but the exception is a big one. The dramatic plane exit of Bauer and Fattal on an Omanian runway, their first true moment of freedom, and their embrace of their families, is scored with a crescendo of grunge rock, when no soundtrack at all would have been more appropriate.

Also, the fourth wall sometimes intrudes too greatly into family intimacy, epitomized by a scene in which Shourd places a cell phone delivering a loved one's message on the lawn, so that fellow demonstrators can form a tight circle around it to listen in, the cameraman (or woman) among them.