In her most recent documentary, Academy-Award winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA”) takes an apolitical yet not impartial look at the human challenges of combat. “Desert One” is the story of a failed rescue mission, told by the men who, in the words of their British colleagues, “had the guts to try.”
In 1979, when revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage in the Tehran embassy, President Carter did everything he could to avoid taking military action. Kopple does a cursory job of setting the stage for this crisis but covers the main points. In the decades after a 1953 CIA coup shifted power to the Shah, outside voices preaching about a theocratic state fomented a revolutionary spirit among Iranians (particularly college students). The Shah’s military overreach and oppressive leadership was unwelcome, and the U.S. was seen as his enabler. Iranians wanted the Shah gone and would have liked the U.S. to go away with him. When the Shah was finally ousted, and particularly following the Shah’s hospitalization in New York City, anti-American sentiments grew.
Students stormed the US embassy compound in Tehran and took scores of hostages. Ayatollah Khomeini, wanting the Shah returned to Iran so that justice may be exacted, tried to use these hostages as leverage. Carter was unwilling to extradite the Shah, and the days began to pass. Months later, with little movement regarding the hostage situation, Carter acquiesced to military action. The Pentagon’s plan was “simple.” The operation would be conducted from an airfield off the coast of Oman. Under the cover of night, a number of planes and helicopters would land in Tabas, Iran, before entering Tehran to extract the hostages. However, that’s not quite how it came to pass.
I’ll leave the details of the bungling to Kopple, who tells the story better than I ever could, namely through interviews with the surviving members of the Special Operations team who landed in Tabas, Iran in April of 1980. We hear firsthand accounts of what went wrong and why. Visually, the story is told with vivid graphic-novel style illustrations. This film is a captivating tale of hope, loss and regret.
Kopple’s interviewees represent an impressive variety of perspectives (hostages, soldiers, decision makers, bystanders, etc.) from both the Iranian and American sides of this crisis. These diverse perspectives tend to share one common denominator: emotionality. The personal tolls taken by this endeavor are presented in such a way as to supersede the political and tactical.
Consequently, the truth is watered down. Kopple’s focus on the men “in the room” comes at the cost of any account of historical and cultural circumstance. Further, by failing to properly represent the intricate and nuanced cultural politics of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, America is portrayed as a victim. Any student of history will know that this is rarely the case. American greed for oil, the motivation for much of our meddling in this region, was of course omitted from this story. That the American troops took hostages (albeit for less than 24 hours) in the process of rescuing hostages, is mentioned but glossed over. Instead, we see video of American flags burned and American corpses defiled. Oh, and do beware, the viewer is given no warning before images of charred, naked bodies, frozen in infinite agony appear on screen.
All told, the Iranian interviewees offer a perspective to counter that of the American soldiers and hostages. However, that is not quite enough to shift the balance of truth into equilibrium. I leave “Desert One” knowing much has been left unsaid. Perhaps it is not fair to expect a full and honest briefing on the revolution’s motivations and goals, but it certainly is fair to desire that Iran be portrayed as more than a nation of anti-American fanatics.
“Desert One” is a film about American values, grit, resolve and bravery. It is a film about the soldiers who “had the guts to try” an “impossible” task. But it is also a film about Carter’s inaction. It is a film about misplaced American loyalty to an oppressive leader. And perhaps most relevant to today’s political landscape, is a film about the role this failure played in Carter’s loss to Reagan in 1980. For the history buff looking to learn something new about the Iranian hostage crisis, “Desert One” serves its purpose. For those seeking the bigger picture on US-Iranian relations in the 1970-80s, this film might disappoint.
Arts writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.