By Kate Hearst.
At the New York premiere of Desert One at the DOC/NYC film festival, Barbara Kopple recounted how the History Channel provided her with a list of topics to choose for their “History 100” project. That Kopple decided to make a documentary about the unsuccessful 1980 rescue operation to save American hostages held by Iranian revolutionary students is testament to her continuing bravery in choosing to tell a range of stories, even this failed attempt at heroism by smart and dedicated professionals. The result is an extraordinary film that captures the intricacies of a difficult event from multiple points of view.
While Barbara Kopple has released several documentaries recently, including Homeland (2018), A Murder in Mansfield (2018), and This is Everything – Gigi Gorgeous (2017), it is Desert One (2019) that best showcases her tremendous talent in complex documentary story-telling. Indeed, Desert One stands out in the field of documentary that is currently crowded with personal and/or subjective narratives that rely on interesting yet single-strand narratives. We witness how a seasoned documentary filmmaker creates a fast-paced, visually thrilling real life drama told from a variety of perspectives. Kopple’s documentary proves to be a more riveting and moving story than the award-winning, fictional film Argo (2012), that told the semi-factual account of the “Canadian caper” to save six Americans sheltered in the Canadian Ambassador’s home.
In Harlan County USA (1976), her Academy Award-winning first feature, Kopple incorporated multiple viewpoints when documenting the coal miner’s strike, shifting from rank-and-file miners, to mine owners, gun-toting thugs, to the women of West Virginia, among others. In Desert One, Kopple returns to these story-telling roots – featuring telling interviews and moving testimonies from a myriad of voices. One of Kopple’s signatures as a master documentarian is allowing her subjects to reveal their ideas, as well as their deeply-felt emotions, on screen.
Kopple’s poignant interviews with the subjects who participated in the hostage crisis that unfolded from November 1979 through April 1980 are at the center of Desert One. The documentary functions on four levels, as we hear from: former American hostages; Iranian hostage-takers and eye-witnesses; President Jimmy Carter; and finally, the men of the Special Operations rescue mission. Surviving wives and children are also interviewed. Kopple allows each “character” to tell their story, with the hindsight of thirty-nine years.
Kopple’s interview with ninety-one-year-old President Jimmy Carter is riveting, as he reflects on each step of the crisis from November 1979 through April 1980. His humanitarianism is on full display, explaining how he hesitated sending a rescue mission for months because he did not want to lose any American lives. However, this becomes his Achilles’ heel. News anchor Ted Koppel comments on how Carter’s position – assuring the Iranians that as long as the hostages were alive, the U.S. would not attack – was deeply problematic and effectively prolonged the crisis. Months later, Carter finally green-lighted the risky mission where eight Americans Special Forces subsequently lost their lives.
We hear from Americans who were taken hostage and those who participated in the Special Ops rescue mission. One of several fascinating narratives is that of former hostage John Limbert, who recounts being first sent to Iran as an English teacher by the Peace Corps. There, he met and married his wife, an Iranian, and had two boys, both born in Iran. As the Iranian revolutionary protests in 1979 became more numerous and vociferous, Limbert suspected the Shah would fall, and moved his wife and boys to Saudi Arabia. Then, because of his fluency in Farsi, he was called back to staff the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He voluntarily returned, and soon afterward became one of the fifty-two hostages taken by the students.
Kopple also interviews Iranians who were part of the Embassy takeover. Translator Hossein Shiekholeslam clarifies the position of the hostage-takers who wanted the U.S. to return the Shah, whom they viewed as a criminal who had tortured many of his own people, and who deserved to stand trial in Iran. Kopple gives context to these remarks by including images of those who were murdered by the Shah’s regime. We also hear from an Iranian female revolutionary, Faizeh Moslehi, who remembers the heady early days of the revolution and applauded the Shah’s departure. Later, she explains how men and women were “equal” in the student movement, as they kept guard over the hostages. These and other Iranian voices provide an important depth of understanding to the Iranian position in the taking of Americans hostages. Desert One doesn’t shy away from showing how every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Carter received the Shah, despite his monstrous actions against his own people. Kopple allows audiences to ponder how the U.S. actions of supporting the Shah for decades, and of giving him shelter as he fled Iran, helped to foster the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the student-led hostage-taking in Tehran.
Almost immediately after the Embassy crisis began, the U.S. military started planning a rescue mission. They assembled a Special Operations team drawn from Delta Forces, the Marines and the U.S. Air Force. Founder of Delta Force Charlie Beckwith was part of the strategic planning process. We see hundreds of special operatives as they began training.
In Desert One, Kopple breaks out of the cinéma vérité style and employs a full range of documentary tools. She weaves recent and archival interviews with haunting archival footage of the takeover of the Embassy, and the behind-the-scenes development of the rescue mission. For the Special Forces’ operation on the ground at “desert one” in Iran, graphic animation techniques are employed. Kopple’s visual and aural story-telling allows audiences to follow this complex narrative, whether they lived through these events or learned about them for the first time watching this film.
We see Ted Koppel’s Nightline, as it broadcasted the events on the ground at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, as the hostages were held inside by student guards with machine guns. We learn that high-level U.S. military officials also watched Ted Koppel’s news hour footage in order to plan the rescue mission. Roland Guidry of the U.S. Air Force explains that the military had no operatives on the ground in Tehran after the U.S. Embassy takeover. Kopple also inter-weaves archival footage from British and Iranian news sources, as well as never-before-heard audio recordings between the President Carter and General Jones about what was happening on the ground in Iran.
The traumatic events of the rescue mission attempt at the “desert one” landing site in Iran are re-created, using highly effective animation. This location was chosen because it had a road thought to be unused. However, soon after the landing of the helicopters and C-130s, a busload of Iranians on holiday drove through the area. The American forces stopped the bus and detained the passengers. We hear from Iranian Mahmoud Abedini, who was eleven years old at the time and on that bus with his family. He describes in harrowing detail what he witnessed that fateful night. After the bus, an oil tanker drove down the same supposedly deserted road. The Delta One forces fired on the truck and it exploded, though the Iranian driver escaped in another truck that drove through. At that point, the mission was aborted, and the hard part began – attempting to leave Iran and return the American soldiers back to safety. A major dust cloud impaired the vision of the pilots of the C-130, filled with the Delta Force personnel. It crashed into one of the helicopters and an explosion of fire ensued. In graphic animation, we see the burning of the helicopter with a pilot on fire, among other stark images. Eight men died in the flames. The others escaped in the remaining aircraft on the ground and were flown back to the USS Nimitz. The testimony of those who survived is heart-wrenching, as they helplessly watched their fellow soldiers burn to death. Afterward, the charred bodies were found by the Iranians. Before being returned to the Red Cross, the Iranians put the bodies on display in Tehran. Iranians gloated over the failed attack by the U.S. on Iranian soil. Here, Kopple juxtaposes how the American tragedy was perceived as an Iranian victory over a powerful foe who had invaded their country.
In the U.S., President Carter publicly took full responsibility for the failure of the rescue attempt. Both the hostage crisis and foiled rescue were perceived by American citizens as weakness on the part of President Carter. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected in a landslide. Meanwhile, the Shah died in the U.S. and Iraq attacked Iran. Before leaving office, President Carter tried to negotiate the release of the hostages in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian financial assets. But Ayatollah Khomeini held onto the hostages until Reagan was sworn into office, delivering a final insult to Carter.
In Kopple’s feature, there is no finger-pointing against Carter or the military. Indeed, the film reveals how Carter was working all along to support a rescue mission. Meanwhile, the military thought they had a difficult but feasible operation.
Moving with the intensity of a thriller with visually arresting archival and graphic animation, the ultimate strength of Kopple’s documentary remains the poignant testimonials from both Americans and Iranians. Made for the History Channel, the film highlights the heroism of the American hostages, the Special Ops forces, and even President Carter. However, Desert One also gives audiences the opportunity to reflect on the Iranian perspectives, as to why the hostages were originally taken, and how the American rescue attempt was perceived as a military attack on their country. It is in these ways that Kopple’s film raises questions about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. On the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis, Desert One plumbs a deeper understanding of the complexities of these events.
Kate Hearst is working on a book, The Cinema of Barbara Kopple: American Activist. She earned her PhD and MFA in Film at Columbia University and has been teaching film history since 2011. Her interview with Kopple appeared in Film International 16.3.