Rescue me: Desert One (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 22, 2020)

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I recall my excitement when I was finally eligible to vote in a Presidential election. I was all of 20 and cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter. I confess I was not the political junkie I am now. Entering young adulthood in the Watergate era, I had reflexively teetered Left, and for reasons I could not articulate at the time, identified as a Democrat. I was savvy enough to glean the incumbent candidate’s pardon of Nixon smelled funny and I could not look at Ford without thinking of Chevy Chase’s SNL parodies. My horse won, and I was happy (beginner’s luck-as I have since learned “results may vary”).

Despite shifting appraisals as to whether Carter was a “good”, “bad” or “meh” President, I feel that I backed the right horse in 1976. In hindsight, whoever ended up occupying the Oval Office at that point in time was destined to face formidable challenges: “stagflation” of the American economy, a looming energy crisis, the Cold War…that’s just for starters.

However, the most defining crisis of Carter’s presidency began on November 4, 1979:

[From a 2006 Atlantic article]

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.

Washington, D.C., April 11, 1980, Noon

The meeting began with Jimmy Carter’s announcement: “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am seriously considering an attempt to rescue the hostages.”

Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, knew immediately that the president had made a decision. Planning and practice for a rescue mission had been going on in secret for five months, but it had always been regarded as the last resort, and ever since the November 4 embassy takeover, the White House had made every effort to avoid it. As the president launched into a list of detailed questions about how it was to be done, his aides knew he had mentally crossed a line.

Carter had met the takeover in Iran with tremendous restraint, equating the national interest with the well-being of the fifty-three hostages, and his measured response had elicited a great deal of admiration, both at home and abroad. His approval ratings had doubled in the first month of the crisis. But in the following months, restraint had begun to smell like weakness and indecision. Three times in the past five months, carefully negotiated secret settlements had been ditched by the inscrutable Iranian mullahs, and the administration had been made to look more foolish each time. Approval ratings had nose-dived, and even stalwart friends of the administration were demanding action. Jimmy Carter’s formidable patience was badly strained.

And the mission that had originally seemed so preposterous had gradually come to seem feasible. It was a two-day affair with a great many moving parts and very little room for error—one of the most daring thrusts in U.S. military history. It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom. With spring coming on, the hours of darkness, needed to get the first part of this done, were shrinking fast.

Sounds like a Hollywood pitch, but it was a very real plan, and the stakes were high. What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, as painstakingly detailed in Barbara Kopple’s new documentary Desert One everything that could go wrong went horribly wrong.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream, Shut Up and Sing) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Jimmy Carter.

There are nearly as many moving parts in Kopple’s film as in the original mission plan and she assembles it all beautifully, like a tightly scripted thriller. She also captures the emotional trauma that still haunts many participants some 40 years on.

Kopple maintains a neutral political tone and injects some Rashomon-worthy moments (e.g. hostage and hostage-taker accounts of some events do not reconcile). Still, like any good documentary filmmaker she does not judge but leaves it up to the viewer to parse.

You could say Kopple had her work cut out for her. There is an oft-repeated cliché that “history is written by the winners”. That may be true in many cases, but there do not appear to be any clear “winners” in this instance. At the very least, it begs questions.

Yes, the hostages were eventually freed, and President Reagan certainly did not pass up a politically advantageous opportunity to position it as a “victory” for his new administration. But when you consider the Iranians purposely held off initializing the transfer until literally moments after Reagan was sworn into office, expressly so they could taunt departing President Carter…was it really a “victory” for Reagan?

Likewise, the Iranians have preserved the location of the failed 1980 mission to commemorate what they annually celebrate as their “victory” against a U.S. “invasion”. But considering there was no military engagement nor any awareness of the incursion until after the Americans had skedaddled, and the fact that Delta Force suffered its “defeat” due to bad luck and weather-can Iran claim it as a true “victory”?

It is way above my pay rate to answer such questions; you will have to watch this excellent, thought-provoking documentary and decide for yourself.

“Desert One” is now playing via SIFF’s Virtual Cinema platform.

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