Documentary Review: A mission gone wrong remembered, “Desert One”

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One of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers adds another exclamation point to her resume with “Desert One,” a thorough and moving remembrance of the failed Special Forces mission to rescue American Embassy hostages being held in Iran.

Barbara Kopple, a two-time Oscar winner and a legend in the field since “Harlan County, USA” (1977), got access to an American president and vice president, and newsman Ted Kopple, perhaps the man Americans most famously associated with “The Iranian Hostage Crisis.” But she gained entry to Iran and spoke to Iranian hostage takers and the site of the disaster as well.

And she interviewed surviving hostages, the military men who helped plan and attempt the doomed mission, which went awry when poor intelligence, equipment failures, weather and a lack of a full dress rehearsal collided on a dry desert lake bed rendezvous point that gives the film its title — “Desert One.”

We hear tape recordings of then-President Jimmy Carter’s conversations with the general in charge of this “full radio silence” special operation, hear his pointed questions and grim acceptance of what was going on and see something that’s become rare in elected leaders in the 40 years since, a public (TV) declaration that “It was my decision to attempt the rescue operation…The responsibility is fully my own.”

As we hear from the surviving veterans who detail the complex mission and how it was planned over the months after the November, 1979 seizing of the American Embassy in Tehran, the film’s purpose comes into focus. Yes, there were “too many moving parts,” as one officer remembers. Yes, losing the embassy and its CIA station members meant they didn’t have fresh intelligence and thus were flying in blind.

But the attempt itself was heroic, no matter how it turned out.

Kopple and her interview subjects give us a quick overview of American-Iranian history, this country’s decades-long Cold War support of the brutal Shah, who was installed in a Churchill and Eisenhower-engineered coup in 1953.

Former hostages and embassy employees John Limbert and Michael Metrinko recall the growing unease that “something bad was going to happen” when the Shah finally abdicated and fled in 1979. But they remained on post.

“How often do you get the chance to watch a tornado coming down your street?” is how Metrinko rationalized it.

It’s fascinating to hear, too, from an Iranian translator and actual former “student revolutionaries” and hostage takers, to give us the inside-Iran perspective.

Kopple uses eyewitness memories and hand-drawn illustrations to detail the specifics of the mission itself, and the assorted equipment failures and miscalculations that began to pile up in the middle of the Iranian night.

There’s even an Iranian survivor of the tour bus that accidentally drove up on the “Desert One” landing site.

“Desert One” is unsparing and unflinching, showing us the ghoulish Iranian display of American corpses on TV and recounting the diplomatic failures, Carter’s big public statement blunder that limited America’s options and candidate Ronald Reagan’s B-movie star bravado and bluster in second guessing the sitting president every step of the way.

The Reagan campaign’s alleged efforts to delay the hostage release is alluded to by some of the military men involved, the so-called “October surprise” effort to undermine official U.S. policy and negotiations.

But Kopple’s main focus remains those who took on the duty, did their jobs and struggled to make an increasingly unworkable situation succeed, “forgotten heroes” of Operation Eagle Claw. Her thorough and thoroughly engrossing film preserves their story and ensures that this is “forgotten history” no more.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic images of dead bodies

Cast: Lt. Col. Ed Seiffert, John Limbert Jr., Michael Metrinko, Kevin Hermening, Sgt. Richard “Taco” Sanchez, Jimmy Carter ,Ted Koppel and Walter Mondale

Credits: Directed by Barbara Kopple, script by Francisco Bello. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:47

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