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Toronto Film Review: ‘Desert One’

Barbara Kopple's documentary about the disastrous U.S. rescue mission during the Iran-hostage crisis is an absorbing nuts-and-bolts chronicle that skirts the larger issues of how this debacle changed our world.

Director:
Barbara Kopple
With:
Charles A. Beckwith, James Q. Roberts.

Official Site: https://tiff.net/events/desert-one

September 11, 2001, was the day that changed our world — but really, the day that changed our world was April 24, 1980. That was when the United States, under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter, launched Operation Eagle Claw, the Delta Force mission (it was the very first Delta Force mission) that was designed to bring an immediate end to the Iran-hostage crisis by rescuing all 52 of the hostages who were being held at the U.S. Embassy and Foreign Ministry buildings in Tehran.

We all know how that worked out; it ended in disaster. The Delta Force soldiers landed in the Iranian desert in eight helicopters, only five of which were still operational. Since it had been decided during the planning stages that the mission should be aborted if less than six helicopters remained, President Carter called the mission off. It was then that the debacle happened.

As the U.S. forces were getting ready to leave, one helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft that contained soldiers and jet fuel. It exploded; eight servicemen died — by being burned alive. The mission was no longer just a failure, or even a cataclysmic failure. It was a public cataclysmic failure.

Desert One,” an engrossing documentary directed by Barbara Kopple, tells the story of that famously messed-up mission by interviewing a number of the participants: commanders, soldiers, American hostages, former President Carter. It brings you up close to the events (though not always visually; most of the mission is re-created with animated footage). You emerge from “Desert One” knowing certain aspects of the Iran-hostage crisis better than you did before. That makes it a worthy film, and an absorbing one.

Yet given the moment this movie is appearing, it still didn’t go as far as it should have. “Desert One” is a production of the History Channel, and one of the mysteries of history is that it shifts over time. The Iran-hostage crisis means something different today than it did, say, 25 years ago.

The failed rescue mission was a tragic event that, fairly or not, became a metaphor. It was, to begin with, a case of staggering incompetence, or maybe negligence. But the way that played in the American imagination wasn’t merely as a colossal mishap of execution. It played as American military might gone impotent in the hands of a liberal president, at a moment when liberal Democrats were fighting the image of not being tough enough.

Though duly elected, Jimmy Carter, in his cardigan sweaters, with his big-toothed grin of compassion, had to brush off the perception of a kind of Wimp Factor. That’s what his “malaise” speech, on July 15, 1979, really came down to. He had said that America was in a funk, suffering a “crisis of confidence.” But since he was supposed to be the one leading and inspiring us, the speech made it sound like he was whining about the rest of us. A successful rescue of the hostages in Tehran might have turned that dynamic around. Instead, the brutally botched mission seemed to testify, in some primal way, to Carter’s malaise. His indecision. His failure to execute.

And here’s what that all now comes down to — admittedly, in the realm of conjecture. The Iran-hostage crisis, all 444 miserable days of it, was a slo-mo calamity that tweaked the balance of global power, setting the template for the possibility of a weaponized clash between the Islamic world and the Western world. (It also planted the seeds of the deadening info-junkie opioid that is the 24/7 news cycle.) But if the hostage crisis had been brought to a valiant end on April 24, 1980, the Carter presidency might have had a different karma. You can argue that there’s a good chance Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been elected. And if that happened, I’d put the rest in this shorthand way: Carter ending the hostage crisis = no Reagan = no rise of the politics of unreality = no Trump. Yes, it’s conjecture, but it suggests the possibility of how much April 24, 1980, mattered.

“Desert One” acquaints us with some of the men, and captures the experience of the rescue mission as it was happening. “Before the actual mission,” says Col. James Q. Roberts, “there was never a full-on dress rehearsal.” That may seem inconceivable given the way we know special forces now operate, yet what’s described, in “Desert One,” is a kind of action movie gone wrong. When the men first landed in the desert, a fuel truck blew up, making the night sky look like daylight. And when they were taking off, a thick dust cloud made it impossible to see. (Iranian revolutionaries would later call that dust cloud an act of God.) It was Charles A. Beckwith, the creator of Delta Force (who died in 1994, but we see interview clips of him here), who argued to abort the mission. And Carter agreed. The closest thing that Kopple has to an investigative coup are audiotapes of Carter speaking to his commanders, saying things like “Uh-huh” and “Okay.” It’s not wrong for a president to heed the word of officers on the ground, yet it’s fair to say that on these tapes, you hear Carter’s lack of initiative. He was following, not leading. He sounds like the Ho-Hummer-in-Chief.

The description of the helicopter crash, and its aftermath, is horrifying: a military nightmare unfolding in real time. There were 46 men on the plane, eight of whom died, and when the Iranians dragged their charred corpses out into public view, putting them on grisly display (an absolute blasphemy that we see clips of here), it made a morbid mockery of America’s defeat. Carter, speaking to the nation, looks shell-shocked.

And yet, as vivid as all of this is, it calls forth questions, 40 years later, that beg to be answered. How was the rescue mission supposed to work anyway? The film never addresses that. More to the point, why was it planned in such a slipshod manner? Is it because this was, in fact, the dawn of the special-forces era? “Desert One” makes the jaw-dropping point that the military was getting much of its intelligence from Ted Koppel’s reports on “Nightline.” Yet where was the military’s own intelligence? The film doesn’t explore that.

“Desert One” features interviews with several of the hostages, and we get a feel for their experience. At one point, they were taken, blindfolded, to an execution chamber, where they heard the sounds of guns being locked and loaded — just because their captors wanted to mess with them. But as chilling as that is, the key question looming over the Iran-hostage crisis is this: Did Ronald Reagan engage in secret negotiations with the Iranians to hold off on the release of the hostages? All to push Carter out of office?

The film raises that issue in an obvious way. It points out that the hostages were released almost literally the moment that Reagan was inaugurated, something that has never remotely passed the smell test of being a coincidence. Yet it’s frustrating to be confronted with the same old brick wall of vagueness about what went on behind the scenes of this event. When you watch “Desert One,” as vital a story as it tells, the movie, coming 40 years after the Iran-hostage crisis, seems too insular, too small ball. Given how much the Iran-hostage crisis changed our world, ushering in the snake-oil presidency of Ronald Reagan (trickle-down economics, Iran-Contra) and escalating the tension between radical Islam and the West to mythic levels, maybe it will start to change back only when the fundamentals of that crisis stop feeling like a cover-up. “Desert One” is a good documentary, but that’s the documentary we need.

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Toronto Film Review: 'Desert One'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF DOCS), Sept. 10, 2019. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production: A History Channel release of a Cabin Creek films production. Producers: Barbara Kopple, David Cassidy, Eric Forman. Executive producers: Zachary G. Behr, Eli Lehrer.

Crew: Director: Barbara Kopple. Camera (color, widescreen): Asad Faruqie, Gary Griffin, Gelareh Kiazand, Thomas Kaufman. Editors: Francisco Bello, Fabian Caballero. Music: Wendy Blackstone.

With: Charles A. Beckwith, James Q. Roberts.

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