Bril­liant doc­u­men­tary ex­am­ines fa­tal flaws of tragic 1980 U.S. res­cue mis­sion in Iran

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

“Do you have any reports on the he­li­copters’ lo­ca­tion?” “They have passed the point of no re­turn.” — Never-be­fore-heard tele­phone conversati­on be­tween Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter and Joint Chiefs Chair­man Gen. David Jones as the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary swooped in on Iran in an ef­fort to res­cue 52 hostages on April 24, 1980.

You feel a hur­ri­cane of emo­tions watch­ing Bar­bara Kop­ple’s bril­liant and sear­ing doc­u­men­tary “Desert One,” which ar­rives some 40 years af­ter Oper­a­tion Ea­gle Claw, one of the most tragic failed mil­i­tary mis­sions in Amer­i­can his­tory.

You’re awestruck by the brav­ery and ded­i­ca­tion of the Armed Forces per­son­nel who risked and, in some cases, gave their lives in an ef­fort to pull off a dar­ing res­cue mis­sion.

You’re frus­trated by the hes­i­tancy and in­ac­tion of Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter, who stub­bornly re­sisted us­ing mil­i­tary force for months as the cri­sis dragged on and 52 Amer­i­cans were held pris­oner in the em­bassy in Tehran.

You’re im­pressed by the re­silience and strength of the for­mer hostages who are in­ter­viewed for the doc­u­men­tary.

And you’re sick­ened to learn the an­niver­sary of the deadly crash that claimed eight Amer­i­can lives is cel­e­brated in Iran, and the site of the crash it­self is a tourist at­trac­tion.

At 74, Bar­bara Kop­ple, a twotime Os­car win­ner (for “Har­lan County USA” and “Amer­i­can Dream”), is still at the top of her game, de­liv­er­ing an­other Academy Award con­tender fea­tur­ing archival footage, ju­di­cious use of an­i­mated re-cre­ations and in­ter­views with for­mer Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Wal­ter Mon­dale, re­tired U.S. Army Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence Col. James Q. Roberts and leg­endary an­chor-re­porter Ted Kop­pel, among oth­ers. Af­ter giv­ing us a brief but thor­ough back­ground on Amer­i­can-Ira­nian re­la­tions in the 20th cen­tury, “Desert One” laser fo­cuses on the Iran hostage cri­sis, which was ig­nited on Nov. 4, 1979, when a gang of Ira­nian col­lege stu­dents took over the U.S. Em­bassy in Tehran as Iran de­manded the U.S. re­turn the over­thrown Shah of Iran, who was in New York for cancer treat­ment.

An Amer­i­can pop­u­lace al­ready dis­en­chanted with the Carter pres­i­dency (es­pe­cially af­ter he gave his in­fa­mous “malaise” speech in the sum­mer of 1979 and blamed the Amer­i­can peo­ple for hav­ing a “cri­sis in con­fi­dence”) be­came in­creas­ingly frus­trated as Carter ver­bally con­demned the act of ter­ror­ism but took no ac­tion. Even though Carter was a highly ac­com­plished Navy vet­eran, “he had a great an­tipa­thy to the use of mil­i­tary force,” Mon­dale says in an in­ter­view for the film.

Fi­nally, some five months into the cri­sis, Carter ap­proved Oper­a­tion Ea­gle Claw, a risky and ill-con­ceived mis­sion. The plan: Spe­cial Ops Forces would in­vade a re­mote patch of Ira­nian ter­ri­tory via trans­port air­craft and he­li­copter, land­ing at a ral­ly­ing point called Desert One. From there, un­der the cover of night, a squadron of eight he­li­copters would set out for Tehran, land at the Amer­i­can em­bassy, bust in and res­cue the hostages.

As­ton­ish­ingly, there were no dry runs. “Be­fore the ac­tual mis­sion,” says Col. Roberts, “there was never a full-on dress re­hearsal.” Per­haps if there had been one, the ar­chi­tects of the plan would have re­al­ized how many ob­sta­cles they were fac­ing.

As for­mer par­tic­i­pants and prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tects of the raid share their mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences, an­i­ma­tion rem­i­nis­cent of a graphic novel serves to re-cre­ate a tragic chain of events. Only five of the he­li­copters were still fully op­er­a­tional af­ter land­ing. The sup­pos­edly re­mote lo­ca­tion was ad­ja­cent to a road­way, and when a bus ap­proached, the Amer­i­can forces had to hold the pas­sen­gers as hostages lest their cover be blown. And then, as a dust storm swirled about, a he­li­copter crashed into a trans­port con­tain­ing soldiers and jet fuel, caus­ing a mas­sive ex­plo­sion that lit up the night sky and took the lives of eight Amer­i­can soldiers who were burned alive. In a grisly and nau­se­at­ing act, Ira­ni­ans dragged the charred corpses into pub­lic view and put them on dis­play with cam­eras rolling.

Direc­tor Kop­ple has ob­tained never-be­fore-heard au­dio of com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Carter and the mil­i­tary com­mand, and it’s ab­so­lutely chill­ing to hear the pres­i­dent’s re­ac­tions to re­ceiv­ing news that goes from hope­ful to cau­tion­ary to ter­ri­ble to dev­as­tat­ing. The de­ci­sion is made to abort the mis­sion, and the hostages re­mained cap­tive un­til Jan. 20, 1981 — lit­er­ally min­utes af­ter Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan was sworn in af­ter trounc­ing Carter in the 1980 elec­tion. Even if Oper­a­tion Ea­gle Claw had been suc­cess­ful, it’s de­bat­able if Carter would have won re-elec­tion, but af­ter that glob­ally hu­mil­i­at­ing and tragic fail­ure, he had no chance. Amer­ica was look­ing for a leader right out of a Hollywood movie.


In a scene from “Desert One,” tourists visit the site where a U.S. he­li­copter crashed dur­ing a failed res­cue mis­sion in Iran.

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