Review by Alan French
When the United States assassinated Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, much of the world cheered. Infamous for his war crimes, Soleimani’s death struck a blow to extremist efforts in the region. However, Iran promised retaliation for the intrusion against their sovereignty. Many feared this action might begin World War III. However, after Iran launched a missile and shot down a civilian plane, tensions seemed to dissipate for the time being. That flight was Ukrainian Air 752, which carried 176 passengers. For Hamed Esmaeilion, the death of his wife and daughter launched him on a path to find justice. The film 752 Is Not a Number channels that grief into a document of pain and sadness.
Documentarian Babak Payami uses 752 Is Not a Number to follow Esmaeillion to Iran and back. Throughout 752, Payami focuses on a man devastated by loss and searching for purpose. After it becomes apparent that those responsible are still at large, Esmaeillion begins to pursue justice on the international stage. COVID infection rates climb. Esmaeillion’s activities become the focus of the Iranian government. For a small author living in Canada, Esmaeillion approaches his fight with unwavering conviction. Without consistent pressure from those who lost family to the crash, there would be no resolution possible.
The footage from Iran depicts the plane crash in upsetting detail. We observe images of the wreckage and Esmaeillion’s personal photographs, creating an uneasy juxtaposition. Payami never forgets that the victims of this act were not soldiers but innocent men, women, and children. Even as the conspiracy surrounding the event grows in scope, this central truth stands over the story. These are horrifying moments, and Esmaeillion’s actions are heroic.
Payami assembles 752 Is Not a Number from dozens of sources. As he pulls apart the issues, he allows us to acknowledge the scale of coverup. Payami and Esmaeillion lay out the crimes one at a time, which adds tension to the movement for justice. 752 frames itself as a journalistic document. It also serves as a statement of intent, laying out clear lines that the families will not cross.
752 faces two issues throughout the film. First, Payami's choice to utilize voiceover narration almost undermines the entire film. He was present for some of the real moments of tension, which makes his presence important in telling the story. However, the footage speaks for itself. The narration inadvertently undermines the raw power of this footage.
Second, the film’s pacing issues also become a problem. There are moments where 752 plods to a halt while the subjects talk in circles. Then, a grand reveal occurs at a pivotal moment, and we are off to the races. Rather than give the audience context, we are on a plane flying across the world in a matter of minutes. This breakneck pace undermines the slower, more personal moments of the film. We are caught between a portrait of grief and hard journalism, and Payami cannot marry the two stories.
The story of Ukrainian Air 752 should not be forgotten anytime soon. But, thanks to 752 is Not a Number, it will not be. A stunning portrayal of bravery, grief, and the search for truth becomes something more in 2022. The actions here are genuinely heroic, and the resulting film will be hard to forget.
752 Is Not a Number screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.