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Review

Documentary 'A Dying King: The Shah of Iran' chronicles monarch's strange demise

The fascinating story of how a single case of lymphatic cancer may have led to the 444-day Iran hostage crisis is skillfully recounted in the documentary “A Dying King: The Shah of Iran.”

Writer-director Bobak Kalhor, using a trove of strong archival footage plus commentary from doctors, professors and former diplomats, traces the rise and fall of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He reigned from 1941 until early 1979 when, due to severe political unrest, he abdicated the throne and was exiled into a nomadic existence that took him and his family to Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, Mexico and the United States.

The shah’s man-without-a-country status was the result not only of opposition from Islamic insurgents to his modernizing, pro-Western policies but the fact that Reza had been secretly receiving treatment abroad for lymphoma, which had caused his ruling and decision-making abilities to suffer. This domestic instability paved the way for revolt and the naming of theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader.

The film then follows the Shah as, guided by conflicting physicians and restrictive political forces, he ricocheted from nation to nation undergoing a series of medical missteps. These included a botched spleen removal by noted surgeon Michael DeBakey.

When the Iran hostage crisis broke out in November 1979, student revolutionaries used the ailing shah as a bargaining chip: If then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped extradite the shah to Iran, Iran would free the American hostages. That never happened.

Instead, it led to a failed military rescue by the U.S., sanctions against Iran, and it contributed to the political demise of Carter and the fraught relationship that continues today between America and Iran.

As for the shah, he died in July 1980 of a type of cancer, the film posits, that might have been remedied under more normal conditions.

Kalhor’s concise if low-key narration helps the story’s many facts and facets unfold with clarity and context. Ultimately, though, it’s the stranger-than-fiction nature of this eye-opening tale that makes the film so vital and involving.

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‘A Dying King: The Shah of Iran’

In English and Farsi with English subtitles.

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Starts Wednesday at Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Thursday at Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino

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