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Filmmaker Barbara Kopple won Oscars for the romantic documentaries about striking workers,” Harlan County, USA” and”American Dream.” Now she appears to a story that has a more international scope, “Desert One,” that is readily available for virtual ticketing through the Coronado Island Film Festival and Angelika Film Center.
In the aftermath of a revolution by Islamic fundamentalists fueled by anti-American sentiment, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran became both a sign and a target. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the embassy and held 52 American diplomats as hostages for 444 days. This became known as the Iran Hostage Crisis, and it dominated both the information and the American people’s minds because of the duration. Jimmy Carter was president at the time along with his insistence on using diplomacy instead of military action was broadly criticised and viewed as weak.
But in April of 1980, with diplomacy failing to win a release of the hostages, Carter finally consented to a secret mission to try and rescue the 52 guys.
Barbara Kopple’s documentary”Desert One” appears to this secret assignment, which the press materials note was known as”the most daring, difficult, complex, rescue mission ever tried.” And spoiler alert for those who don’t know history, also, it failed.
But that does not stop filmmaker Barbara Kopple from documenting the assignment in fascinating detail. She tries to tell the whole story and from multiple sides. So she interviews Jimmy Carter, special ops members, hostages as well as Iranian captors. She even finds an Iranian man who watched the assignment as an 11-year-old boy that was on a bus along with his family in the desert and has been arrested by the American soldiers.
Kopple insists that this isn’t just an American narrative but an undercover one. She even brought in Iranian crew members to picture inside Iran. She also uncovers amazing archival material of sound recordings of communications between Carter and the overall in charge of the mission as well as video and photographs from this part.
Though this is considered one of Carter’s epic failures, what’s refreshing is to see a president who is guided more by humankind than political chance, and who readily accepted all accountability for what happened.
On national news, he states: “It was my own choice to attempt the rescue operation, it was my decision to cancel it. The responsibility was fully my own.”
And even now, he’s completely open and prepared to go over episodes as for him the sole concern was to bring back all of the hostages alive and that he had been willing to endure any criticism because of his willingness to try diplomacy first and resist a military response. I suggest viewing the documentary”Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President” for a more in-depth look at what guided his policies and presidency. It makes a solid companion piece to this film.
Carter’s peaceful approach is briefly contrasted with that of Ronald Reagan who would defeat him in the presidential elections that year. Kopple inquires the hostages she interviews if they believe Reagan or people on his team arranged to have the hostages released just moments after he took office, and a few of those hostages suspect that would be the case. However, Kopple raises the issue and doesn’t choose to explore it.
Kopple does explore how members of the special ops had not just to endure what was regarded as a humiliating defeat but also endure the annoyance of losing eight group members. 1 team member mentally recalls getting a few cases of beers from British contract workers at the camp where they were established for the mission. The beers came with a note that said, “To you all from us all for having the guts to try.”
Among the things the movie makes is that even though the mission failed, it does not diminish the heroism of those men who went to try and rescue the hostages, many of these volunteers in their twenties. Among the most disturbing moments in the film is footage of those charred bodies of those men who were left behind. It isn’t very pleasant but then it ought to be.
“Desert One” is a compellingly told, amazingly intimate, and thoroughly researched documentary but I wish it also looked for deeper insights. There is a scene of a yearly celebration every year in Iran at the site where the U.S. plane and two helicopters still stay as a monument to the American collapse. There appears to be a lesson embedded in here about how America conducted and still conducts its foreign policy which needs further exploration and context but maybe that is for a different movie.
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