Do Hostage Films Help? Part I: The Movies of Our Lives: How I Happened Upon Hostage Films


In this 2-part series, a psychiatrist explores the connections between hostage films and psychiatry.

Sergey Chayko_AdobeStock

Sergey Chayko_AdobeStock


There are times when movie memes mirror contemporary events that pervade the public’s consciousness, and there are times when our personal unconscious directs us to specific themes, even without our conscious awareness. For me, over the past few months, my muse has led me to hostage-themed films, which have offered a catharsis of sorts, as well as an evening’s entertainment.

As contemporary as this concept sounds, it harps back to the ancient Greek theatrical term, catharsis, which explains the emotional release experienced when audiences identify with actors during a drama and then enjoy relief after the action ends and when emotions provoked by the performance are purged. This same word was coopted by Freud, who aspired to induce a parallel release of emotions and repressed memories in his patients through his “talking cure.” 

My own aspirations were less lofty when I had chanced upon 2 Hebrew-language TV shows whose trailers featured doctors, and psychiatrists, no less (another favorite meme of mine). Coincidentally, the plots of both shows revolved around hostages—a very timely topic today. My first choice—Prisoners of War—first screened in Israel in 2010, 14 years ago. A second season ran in fall 2012. Yet this series, which revolves around 3 military men held captive for 17 years, felt incredibly current, given the events that occurred last October.

A psychiatrist appears in the opening scene, but there turns out to be not just 1 psychiatrist in the series, but 3! Early on, a government-appointed psychiatrist interrogates 2 recently released hostages. He seems to be cruel beyond belief when he questions the credibility of these clearly traumatized men who just arrived home, after 17 years in captivity. He badgers them over and over again, repeating the same questions, but shifting sentence structures ever so slightly, as if to trip them up.

He had watched their hand movements carefully and doubted the veracity of their words. He is also skeptical about the disparities in their descriptions of the third missing soldier who had been captured in Lebanon—the one whose remains reportedly returned in a coffin at the same time as the 2 surviving hostages (those now under interrogation) disembarked.

That psychiatrist insists that the soldiers remain in government custody so he can observe their behavior over time. They are locked in a sterile-appearing facility that recollects a cross between a residential treatment center and a minimum-security jail. He questions them again and again.

During the 2 seasons of the series, 2 more psychiatrists surface. One is “ethically ambiguous” and off-putting, even if his intent eventually proves to be admirable. The other is a sad but sympathetic widower—a lonely man who tows the line ethically, even when tempted by the boundary-breaking, behavior-disordered daughter of a newly released hostage. He hopes to date the wife who had been abandoned by the first hostage (the one with violent posttraumatic stress disorder outbursts).

We later learn that the “paranoid” perceptions of the original psychiatrist were not off-base, even if his tactics for retrieving information are sketchy. He crosses ethical boundaries when he tasks his attractive young assistant with seducing the more emotionally fragile of the 2 freed hostages (but not the one with violent outbursts who will soon walk out on his loyal wife).

That second soldier had become vulnerable because his beloved fiancée—whose mental images had helped him endure his protracted captivity—had married his brother in his absence and borne the brother’s baby because she believed that her former fiancé was dead. Iris, the young female assistant, is expected to extract information about the third “dead” hostage—who did not return and who is not dead at all—even though his “remains” were buried and accorded military honors.

Although initially adversarial, this first psychiatrist becomes the biggest supporter of these very damaged men. It was he who suspects that the buried body parts did not belong to the missing third man, and so he pushes to exhume the remains. He hopes to prove that a different man is interred in his place.

As the show ends, we witness the return of the third man, who has lived in Lebanon as a Muslim and married the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Iman. He later returns to Israel—after his 2 comrades stage a heroic “off-the-books” rescue to retrieve him from Lebanon. He, too, experiences excruciating flashbacks of his near-death beatings, for he had been left for dead before being resuscitated by a Lebanese double agent. And then the show ends.

This Israeli TV show won the Israeli Academy Award for Television for Best Drama Series and gained ever greater visibility after it inspired Homeland, a popular American television series that aired in the United States from 2011 through 2020. In spite of its impressively long run, Homeland does not delve into the psychological depths that Prisoners excavates. Prisoners chronicles the interwoven relationships among the hostages and the families they left behind—and the psychiatrists who seek to help them and sometimes seem to sabotage them.

Prisoners highlights public rallies staged throughout the hostages’ 17-year ordeal. The wife of one hostage (the one with violent PTSD episodes) becomes the ex officio spokesperson for all 3—although her motives are later called into question by her disinhibited and distraught daughter (who previously tried to seduce her ever-patient and ethical psychiatrist). Yet the most overwhelming aspects of this series were the flashback scenes with horrifying visions of torture. These recurring scenes on-screen made me wonder what lies in store for hostages in real life.

Satisfied with my first choice, even though unnerved, I moved onto Netflix’ next free TV series, Hostages. That title left no ambiguity about the topic. Hostages’ 22 episodes were broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 in 2013 before being added to American streaming services. An anemic American version, adapted from Hostages, would be cancelled after 1 season.

Hostages traces the moral and medical dilemma faced by an esteemed surgeon who is ordered to botch surgery scheduled for the prime minister (PM). Essentially, she is told to murder the PM via a medical “mistake.” When she refuses to comply, masked intruders enter her home hold her family at gunpoint, threatening to kill all of them.

This series employs a hackneyed backstory about a deceitful and financially irresponsible husband who tries to settle his previously undisclosed debts by taking cash advances from the team that takes his children hostage.

The second season, which is only tangentially related to the first season, reveals yet another well-trodden theme: that of a devoted family man who will go to great lengths, even criminal lengths, to save his dying wife’s life. Hackneyed or not, the series held my attention.

The show’s star—Yonah Lotan, an Israeli-born actor who spent years living in New York City—has appeared in popular American streaming shows such as 24 and Person of Interest. He also acted in The Jacket (2005), an odd film about an abusive mental institution in which Kris Kristofferson plays a drug-addled psychiatrist who subjects a veteran (Adrien Brody) to unethical experiments.

Having whet my appetite for such themes, I was dead set on finding more hostage films—but preferably hostage films with happier endings. I had already watched Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), which was released in the same year as The Jacket, and which surely did not fit the bill because all Israeli athletes and coaches (and 1 German police officer) were killed by their Black September captors. That film concerned retribution, not rescue, and I wanted rescue, with something to celebrate, but that film was not it, no matter how illustrious Spielberg is.

I moved on, unaware that impressive heroics awaited me in the next batch of hostage-themed films I found. I will discuss some of these selections in part 2 of this series.

Dr Packer is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, New York.

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