Movie review: ‘Desert One’ is a riveting exploration of 1980 Iran-hostage crisis
Picking up where Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo” left off, the riveting “Desert One” focuses on the members of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Tehran who weren’t so lucky. There were 52 of them, all held captive by Iranian revolutionaries seeking an even-up exchange for the country’s tyrannical shah, the exiled Mohammad Pahlavi. But President Jimmy Carter refused to send the shah back knowing it would mean certain death for the staunch U.S. ally.
So the crisis dragged on for 444 days, likely costing Carter his presidency after a fed up American electorate voted in droves for Republican Ronald Reagan, a hawkish proponent for swift military responses opposed to his far more dovish Democratic opponent. Yet, it’s not like Carter did nothing in response, which is the gist of Barbara Kopple’s fascinating dissection of the president’s one bold move - a military raid that went terribly wrong.
In hindsight, the Desert One rescue operation should never have gone forward, as everything that possibly could go wrong did. Even if you’re already keen to the mission’s numerous SNAFUs, it’s infinitely more compelling to hear it told by the men who were there, as well as a handful of the 52 hostages the special-ops team sought to extract. All of them appear in standard sit-downs with the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker. What sets these testimonials apart from the status quo is the accompanying animation recreating what the men are saying as they say it.
Good thing, too. Because without it, you’d be totally lost - not because of how Kopple tells their story - but by how convoluted the rescue plan proves once a confluence of eight choppers and six C-130 transport planes set out at nightfall toward the Desert One landing site south of Tehran. The ensuing renders “Black Hawk Down” a minor screw-up. Before dawn, eight members of Delta Force will burn to death and millions of dollars in military equipment will be left behind smoldering in the ashes. Worse, all of the carnage is self-inflicted.
Kopple catches many of the survivors fighting tears as they relive a night of horrors that remain just as haunting 40 years after the fact as they did on April 25, 1980. You know exactly how they feel after seeing the burnt corpses uncovered the next morning by Iranian TV, as jubilant locals descend on the site to celebrate the Americans’ colossal failure. It’s clear no one feels the misery more than Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale, as Kopple (“Harlan County U.S.A.”) gathers their takes on the incident via 39 years of replaying the boondoggle in their heads.
It’s noble to hear Carter accepting all the blame, something all too rare amid the current political climate. But Kopple doesn’t dance around Carter’s culpability in the deaths of eight soldiers. Neither does journalist Ted Koppel, whose daily news show, “Nightline,” was used by the special ops to perform reconnaissance on the captors. Koppel doesn’t hesitate to criticize Carter for not taking military action sooner, favoring diplomacy instead. He and many others agree it made America look weak.
Then there’s Barbara Timms, the Wisconsin woman who took it upon herself to fly to Tehran to seek out her son, Kevin Hermening, the youngest of the hostages. Her timing couldn’t be worse, arriving at the same time as the planned rescue. Her subsequent remarks critical of Carter and the U.S. government render her a bit of a pariah back home, not to mention further embarrassing the president. Her son is understandably sheepish in reflecting on his mother’s actions 40 years on. After all, there were 51 others in the same fix. Why should he be special?
The most stirring moments arrive in the coda, when Carter and the surviving special ops participants mourn what was lost on that early morning in late April 1980. It’s a memory and a lasting guilt they’ll take to their graves. Yes, Desert One was a failure, but there’s nobility that also arises via the pride these men instill, knowing at least they tried. It’s all they have to hold onto, and in it, finding the courage to go on living with their tattered consciences.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A documentary by Barbara Kopple featuring participants in the failed 1980 Desert One U.S. hostage rescue mission in Iran. Available for rent on streaming platforms and some theaters.