This is the first in a series of reviews by our New York correspondent Claire Baiz of entries in this year’s Doc NYC, the Big Apple’s – and one of the world’s – premier documentary festivals, running November 6-15.
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Desert One opens on a US Navy supercarrier, fifty miles south of Iran in the Gulf of Oman, hours before a secret military operation that’s doomed to fail.
Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream) whisks the audience away from the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz to offer context for the drama to come.
Kopple takes us back to the Iranian coup of 1953, when Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, aided covertly by the CIA and oil interests, assumed leadership of Iran. The shah’s pro-Western, oil-friendly policies angered Iranians, who finally forced him out, in July 1979.
Pahlavi escaped to Egypt, and was replaced by a hard-line Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s followers wanted the shah returned to Iran to face accusations of war crimes, among other abuses. President Jimmy Carter, though perturbed by Pahlavi’s abysmal human rights record, permitted him to enter the US for medical treatment of an advanced cancer. A group of outraged students in Tehran rebelled. They stormed the US embassy there, took 52 hostages, and demanded the return of the shah in exchange for their freedom – an act that was endorsed, after the fact, by Ayatollah Khomeini. (A half-dozen hostages escaped to the Canadian embassy. That drama is fictionalized by two films – 1981’s Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper and the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Argo.).
By the time Desert One returns to the Nimitz, we know what’s at stake, who’s where, and why. We care about these special ops guys (this is 1979: though a few Muslim guards were women, there were no women involved in this special ops rescue).
Filmmaker Kopple keeps the story simple, the timeline intact. Though it’s a bit long, Desert One’s set-up feels essential, and it helps make the last half hour of the 108-minute film feel more like a thriller.
Desert One humanizes the president, the hostages, and the special forces who would attempt this daring, ill-advised rescue. The recollections and shared wounds of wives, widows, children – and former President Jimmy Carter – burnish the narrative.
Some might argue there are too many “talking heads” in Desert One, but I’d rather see folks talk honestly into a camera than sit through some cheesy re-enactment. There’s no gussying up here. This is a story told by the people who lived through it, and the families of those who died trying.
Koppel is brave enough to give a few Iranians a voice. There’s the female Iranian guard, who still appears “fit for fighting” forty years later, and a middle-aged Iranian, who was eleven years old when he was forced to witness to fiery death and destruction.
I give Koppel kudos for resisting the temptation to marginalize the Iranian people’s plight.
Desert One confirms the truth of Wallace Shawn’s classic line in The Princess Bride: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” The moment the desert sands were disturbed by US military aircraft, the rescue was doomed.
Leave it to a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, to offer up plain talk on “the worst moments of my presidency.” It’s easy to forget that soft-spoken Jimmy Carter had been the executive officer of a US Navy submarine. He was not inexperienced in the chain of command.
“If we succeed, it will be your victory,” Carter told the leaders of the Special Forces, pre-mission. “If we are not successful, it will be my defeat.”
He was right. Americans lost their lives, Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, and his presidential legacy is forever tainted.
One person who will never forgive Carter is longtime ABC News reporter Ted Koppel (no relation to the filmmaker, who spells her last name differently). Ted Koppel anchored Nightline, a ground-breaking half-hour, five-night-a-week in-depth news update that ABC unveiled specifically to cover the Iran hostage crisis. Carter’s military snafu was essential to Koppel’s success, yet his antagonism for Carter is palpable, even after forty years.
The special operations soldiers interviewed in Desert One don’t resent President Carter. They followed orders. They understood the risks. Several expressed reservations about the specifics of the plan, but not one blamed the former president for trying.
“Our team was sad, deflated, embarrassed, and pissed,” said retired US Army Military Intelligence Colonel James Q. Roberts.
A few former hostages, their suffering softened by time, speak without embellishment or embarrassment about the details of captivity. Carter’s re-election campaign director, Gerald Rafshoon, an old soldier of a different variety, eloquently recounts Carter’s loss on the political battlefield.
Carter’s focus on diplomacy and economic pressure was as doomed as the failed rescue mission – even after the shah died, he couldn’t negotiate the hostages’ release.
Ultimately, the hostages were not rescued. They were freed in a way that was most hurtful to Carter: they were put on busses, after 444 days of captivity, moments after Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, took the presidential oath of office.
US negotiations, according to Desert One, may have had little to do with the hostages’ ultimate release. Iran was being invaded by Iraq, and the country needed to concentrate on its conflict with a bellicose neighbor. The Iranians could ill afford to extend their “hospitality” to 52 American “guests” much longer.
Carter expressed genuine grief at the loss of American lives, then and now, and was downright wistful about how his handling of the hostage crisis likely cost him a second term.
Just as insulting (and more enduring), Iran designated the isolated Desert One site a national monument, a place where schoolchildren slide down a broken helicopter wing and sing songs dedicated to divine intervention.
While Desert One offers poignant reflection and true drama, it’s not without flaws. The narrative section is a bit long. Graphic novel-style illustrations of mayhem, flashed onscreen at a vulnerable moment, cheapen the narrative, as do distracting cartoonish maps, superimposed with moving aircraft, distracting imitations of old WWII newsreels.
Still, Desert One sets the standard very high for the 98 documentaries to come.
Desert One is the second installment in an ambitious 100-film project planned by the History Channel, created to chronicle the most momentous events of the last century. The series already had a solid start, with Werner Herzog’s well-reviewed Meeting Gorbachev, released in May 2019 (currently available on several streaming services). Daniel Junge, who won an Oscar for Saving Face, a documentary about acid attacks on women in Pakistan, is working on the next documentary, Game On, an investigation of intrigue in the video game business.
A solid documentary should leave its audience satisfied, yet curious. Desert One did both. I left the theater with a greater understanding of this sad chapter in American history, and renewed appreciation for the military origin of the word “Snafu” (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up).