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Desert One’ Documentary Revisits 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis

Barbara Kopple weaves engrossing tale of rescue mission

Photo credit: Greenwich Entertainment

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple (right) interviews former president Jimmy Carter for the documentary "Desert One."

Companion viewing

"Harlan County, USA" (1976)

"Argo" (2012)

"Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President" (2020)

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple won Oscars for the intimate documentaries about striking workers, "Harlan County, USA" and "American Dream." Now she looks to a story that has a more global scope, "Desert One," which is available for virtually ticketing through the Coronado Island Film Festival and Angelika Film Center.

In the wake of a revolution by Islamic fundamentalists fueled by anti-American sentiment, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran became both a symbol 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 news and the American people's minds for its duration. Jimmy Carter was president at the time and his insistence on using diplomacy rather than military action was broadly criticized and seen as weak.

But in April of 1980, with diplomacy failing to win a release of the hostages, Carter finally agreed to a secret mission to try and rescue the 52 men.

Barbara Kopple's documentary "Desert One" looks to that secret mission, which the press materials note was called “the most audacious, difficult, complicated, rescue mission ever attempted.” And spoiler alert for those who don’t know history, it also failed.

But that doesn’t stop filmmaker Barbara Kopple from documenting the mission in engrossing 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 witnessed the mission as an 11-year-old boy who was on a bus with his family in the desert and was detained by the American soldiers.

Kopple insists that this is not only an American story but an Iranian one. She even brought in Iranian crew members to film inside Iran. She also uncovers amazing archival material of audio recordings of communications between Carter and the general in charge of the mission as well as video and photos from that period.

Although this is considered one of Carter’s epic failures, what’s refreshing is to see a president who’s guided more by humanity than political opportunity, and who readily accepted all responsibility for what happened.

On national news, he states: "It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation, it was my decision to cancel it. The responsibility was fully my own."

And even today, he is completely open and willing to discuss events because for him the only concern was to bring back all the hostages alive and he was willing to suffer any criticism for 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 strong companion piece to this film.

Carter's peaceful approach is briefly contrasted with that of Ronald Reagan who would defeat him in the presidential election that year. Kopple asks the hostages that she interviews if they think that Reagan or people on his team arranged to have the hostages released just moments after he took office, and a couple of the hostages suspect that might be the case. But Kopple just raises the issue and doesn't choose to explore it.

Kopple does explore how members of the special ops had to not only endure what was seen as a humiliating defeat but also suffer the pain of losing eight team members. One team member emotionally recalls getting a couple of cases of beers from British contract workers at the camp where they were based for the mission. The beers came with a note that said, "To you all from us all for having the guts to try."

One of the points the film makes is that even though the mission failed, it does not diminish the heroism of the men who went to try and rescue the hostages, many of them volunteers in their twenties. One of the most disturbing moments in the film is footage of the charred bodies of the men who were left behind. It is upsetting but then it should be.

"Desert One" is a compellingly told, surprisingly intimate, and meticulously researched documentary but I wish it also looked for deeper insights. There is a scene of an annual celebration each year in Iran at the site where the U.S. plane and two helicopters still remain as a monument to the American failure. There seems to be a lesson embedded in here about how America conducted and still conducts its foreign policy that needs further exploration and context but perhaps that is for another film.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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