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One of America’s excellent documentary filmmakers with a career that stretches back to 1976’s Oscar-winning”Harlan County, USA,” Barbara Kopple is at the top of her game in “Desert One,” a riveting account of President Jimmy Carter’s daring but tragically unsuccessful effort to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in Iran in 1980. Although the episodes it chronicles are now four decades in the past, they have a powerful, immediate charge in an election year when tensions between the U.S. and Iran are at another high. And beyond the political implications, this can be a terrifically dramatic and incredibly emotional film; nevertheless, some of the interviewees struggle to keep composure when remembering their past trials.
“Desert One” really tells two related tales, which it brilliantly interweaves. One is that the story of how the Iranian Revolution, which erupted in late 1978 and led to the flight of the highly unpopular Shah and institution of new Islamic authorities under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in early 1979, also resulted, some months later, from the storming of the U.S. Embassy by student militants, whose hostage-taking provoked a prolonged and torturous stand-off between the U.S and Iran. The second story concerns the rescue assignment Carter released the following spring. American soldiers in many military transport planes and tanks managed to use a place in the Iranian desert designated Desert One as a foundation where they would swoop into Tehran and extract the hostages. However, the ill-fated effort ended in that lonely place, with a loss of eight American lives.
Kopple’s powerful notification of these interlocked stories entailed some notable coups. One is that she gained access to previously unreleased White House tapes (remembering those that resulted in Nixon’s downfall). Carter and his circle discuss the assignment with military commanders minute by moment as it unfolds, and as tense expects to turn to shock and heartbreak. Another coup was that she landed a meeting with Carter (not a simple thing to do: that author has tried), thoughtful and candid in recalling what he says were the worst events of his lifetime, not just his presidency. Furthermore, Kopple got interviews in Iran, including with people involved with the hostage-taking, and one that witnessed the fiery tragedy from the desert.
The movie necessarily evokes certain paradoxes of Carter’s presidency. After he was elected in 1976 (an effort quite entertainingly chronicled in the upcoming doc” Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President”), he promised hope, renewal, and peace into a country reeling in the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation, and America’s ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam. But though he was the first president to put a strong and enduring emphasis on human rights,” he didn’t promote resistance to the Shah’s brutal dictatorship. (No doubt this was mainly because of Iran’s strategic proximity to the Soviet Union.) In one funniest comic scene here, Carter, the Shah, and their entourages on the White House lawn weep from the teargas fired at demonstrators protesting the Shah’s trip on a nearby street.
All feature-length documentaries dealing with the subject matter as vast as this have to make hard choices concerning what to include an exit. While I entirely respect the decisions made by Kopple and her team, I wish two characteristics of the story was explored in more depth. One is the 1953 coup-mentioned briefly by an Iranian official-in which the CIA and MI6 overthrew Iran’s democratic government and reinstalled the young Shah, who many Iranians would after that regard as an American puppet. (This event is well-treated at Taghi Amirani’s”Coup 53,” also opening this week.) The other facet is that the Carter administration’s reluctant late-Oct. 1979 decision-reportedly at the urging of the likes of Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller-to admit the Shah into the U.S. for cancer treatment, which directed Iranians to fear that they were in for a repeat of 1953. It had been, one Iranian claims,” a declaration of political war against the people of Iran.”
Sparked by that event, militant Iranian students invaded the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4 and took its occupants hostage. Khomeini could have instantly ended the siege, but he’d reasons-including how the Shah was still too large-to haul out the catastrophe. So began a 444-day ordeal that would not only be grueling for the hostages but would supply Americans with an agonizing nightly tv scene. The hostages Kopple interviews comprise Kevin Harmening, then a young Marine protector whose mom hit the national news after she listened to Tehran to see him (that the Iranians allowed her a brief audience with her son, subsequently forced her to make a statement against Carter), and John Limbert and Michael Metrinko, Farsi-speaking U.S. career diplomats. These men pertain to the mistreatment imposed on them, including at least one regular implementation, but there are also lighter moments. One clip from Iranian TV shows Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now Iran’s Supreme Leader, visiting the hostages and being regaled by Metrinko, who states that Iranians’ reputation for hospitality is so accurate and is now being taken to extremes-they won’t allow their American guests move!
In the spring of 1980, following weeks of fruitless diplomacy, Carter put in motion Operation Eagle Claw. It was a risky effort-one participant who says that he was skeptical from the beginning because it had”too many moving parts”-but military leaders like legendary Delta Force creator Col. Charlie Beckwith thought it could succeed. From around the U.S., Special Ops soldiers are called away from their own families (Kopple interviews several of their wives) and whisked off on a covert mission that sees them experience some intensive secret coaching, then ship out for a base in Egypt. The strategy is for the transport planes and eight helicopters-six are crucial for completing the mission-to fly across southern Iran at night and property in Desert One, whence the choppers would venture to Tehran and free the hostages.
At the very first, it is a spiraling boondoggle. There’s a little road running through the area that was supposed to be little used. Still, the moment the Americans are on the ground, it’s”such as Grand Central,” one remembers: here comes a motorcycle, a busload of religious pilgrims (Kopple interviews one who recalls being a wide-eyed boy witnessing the chaos), and two trucks, one comprising gas which produces a giant explosion when the Americans fire it. By this time, two helicopters have gone inoperable. Every time a third falls out of usage, the inevitable command is provided: “abort.” But misfortune turns into tragedy. A giant dust storm swoops in, and when one chopper tries to shoot off, the blinded pilot rams to a C-130 with 40 soldiers aboard, causing it to erupt into a giant fireball. Eight Americans perish in the conflagration.
The extended arrangement that story these episodes is heart-stopping and gut-wrenching, as radically propulsive as any action movie. Along with her interviews with some participants, Kopple’s telling gains enormously from Zartosht Soltani’s outstanding animation and the job of editors Francisco Bello and Fabian Caballero and composer Wendy Blackstone.
After the town’s deaths, the Americans’ bodies had been taken to Tehran to be flipped over to the Red Cross for repatriation. Still, before that happened, the hideously charred and contorted corpses were stripped naked and placed on show for the entire world press event overseen by Sadegh Khalkhali, a Stalin-like monster who had been responsible for innumerable summary executions as Khomeini’s”hanging judge” This horrific act is the tale’s harsh nadir. Back at the U.S, the fallen men were greeted by a stricken and sorrowful nation and their own grieving families, also awarded tributes that appropriately recognized their patriotism, professionalism, and courage.
As starkly tragic as the end of Operation Eagle Claw was, it, along with the history surrounding it, had been too little known and deserve to get discovered and contemplated as a way of imagining a future beyond the missteps and misunderstandings that have retained the U.S. and Iranian governments at violent odds for decades. As for Carter’s mistakes, it’s hard to disagree with Ted Koppel’s assertion that the president’s signaling Khomeini that he wouldn’t use force provided that the hostages were not killed was”as absurd a policy announcement as you could make.” In any case, Carter’s very un-strategic restraint effectively doomed his reelection opportunities; he had been defeated in a landslide by tough-talking Ronald Reagan. But the same careful course also ended in the hostages being released unharmed. Having the 52 Americans returned was Carter’s pre-eminent target. After all, it’s just too bad the eight guys left at Desert One weren’t similarly rescued.
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