By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/8/21 –Barbara Kopple‘s documentary Desert One (2019) is an enlightening but slow-moving film that will air on The History Channel on Sunday, September 12, at 8 pm ET/PT. The story of the failed US rescue attempt of American hostages being held at the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1980, has been called “the most audacious, difficult, complicated, rescue mission ever attempted.” Desert One uniquely blends emotion and bravado to tell the incredible tale of America’s secret mission to free 52 American hostages of the 1979 Iranian revolution. President Jimmy Carter attempted a secret mission to free the American hostages in Iran in April 1979, but it failed due to problems with the helicopters supporting the jet in the desert. Carter worked tirelessly to free the American hostages from the American Embassy right up until his last day in office on January 20, 1981. Two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple chronicles the mission from the very start through the disastrous result. The mission was jinxed from the onset. The film offers much detail about the incursion into Iran during the dead of night with some never-before-seen archival material and animated re-enactments.
I actually saw the premier of Barbara Kopple’s Desert One (USA, 2019) at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January 2020 and just viewed it again. In her documentary, Kopple explores the different aspects of this failed mission of Operation Eagle Claw on April 8, 1980 through interviews with hostages, soldiers, commanders, and even President Jimmy Carter to reveal the story behind one of the most daring rescue attempts in modern U.S. history – the secret mission with 2 C-130 military transport planes and 8 helicopters took off from the U.S. Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz that that got bogged down in a remote desert area in Iran and left 8 Special Forces servicemen dead. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking over 60 American hostages during Jimmy Carter’s first-term presidency. The Iranians were protesting President Carter’s decision to allow the deposed pro-Western autocrat, the Shah to take asylum in the United States. The Shah was wanted for crimes against the people of Iran, and the students demanded his extradition. President Carter refused.
Like President Carter, America’s Special Forces were also in uncharted territory as they readied for this one-of-a-kind operation. “Special ops” are today used with great frequency by the U.S. military, but then few had been attempted – and none of such scale and complexity. Those who volunteer for the mission are forced to largely invent from scratch the techniques and strategies to accomplish Carter’s goal. They know what faces them is daunting, but they are driven by a deep empathy toward the kidnapped Americans in Tehran. Someone has to have “the guts to try,” they tell themselves, and they determine they will be the ones. Most have never worked together, drawn from several different military branches. Lingering doubts begin to fade as they train for the mission. News of the crisis dominates their TVs most nights, yet they cannot tell their families what they are about to undertake. Finally, the day arrives, April 24, 1980, and the heart-pounding and unforeseen events experienced by this rare group will forever unite them.
Director Kopple also includes the perspective of the former hostage takers. They have no regrets, and feel their actions were justified. What’s even more surprising and shocking is the deep hatred Iranians still hold against America regarding that failed mission. The “invasion” as the subjects in Desert One describe it, are thrilled that the U.S. failed and 8 servicemen perished. The site of the disaster has been memorialized by the Iranians as a museum, not to honor the dead but to gloat with an annual celebration of the victory over the United States. At a moment when tensions once again rise between the governments of Iran and the U.S., old wounds remain painfully current for many on each side who detail their recollections in Desert One – but talk of hope also emerges, that the lessons of the past might finally guide us to a better future.
The current interviews with former President Carter are particularly enlightening and so is the previously unseen and now declassified information about the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by the students during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which overthrew the Shah who was originally installed by the U.S. in 1953. It is important to know that President Carter, who lost his bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan, managed to secure the release of all 52 American hostages after 444 days of captivity by continued diplomacy and the unblocking of Iran’s bank assets the very day that Reagan assumed the U.S. Presidency on January 20, 1981.