On April 24, 1980, eight RH-530 helicopters flew off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on their way to a remote plain in an Iranian desert where they met up with a handful of Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport planes.
That dusty flat piece of ground near a dirt road was called by the U.S. military “Desert One.” It was to serve as the staging area for Operation Eagle Claw, a mission led by Delta Force to rescue 52 American hostages who had been held for months by students in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
The mission became one of the worst disasters in U.S. military history, aborted after one of the helicopters got caught in a dust storm and flew into one of the C-130s. A handful of servicemen died in the fiery crash and the planes and helicopters fled from Iran, leaving the hostages in the embassy for nine more months and spelling the end of the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Forty years later, master documentarian Barbara Kopple recounts the debacle in the desert, the events that led up to the mission and its aftermath, in “Desert One,” a film that could easily win her a third Oscar.
To tell that, Kopple marshals on-camera memories from three of the hostages, more than a half-dozen involved in the mission, from commanders to enlisted men, a few Iranians who were hostage takers, Carter, Walter Mondale and TV newsman Ted Koppel, whose late-night program “Nightline” followed the hostage crisis daily.
Footage from “Nightline,” which served as the best source of intelligence for what was going on inside the embassy, figures prominently in “Desert One,” as do television reports from around the world that provided views of the Iranian Revolution, the hostages in the embassy and the aftermath of the missions, including gruesome photos of the burned bodies being displayed by the Iranian government.
The revelation in “Desert One” is recordings of conversations between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. David Jones and Carter and Mondale, the vice president, on the night of the mission — a harrowing series of reports that began with keeping up on the helicopters' location and ended with the sobering initial account of the disaster in the desert.
Those conversations are, in some sense, the bland, but devastating crux of the documentary that from the start raises unanswerable questions — like, “Why did the U.S. allow the Shah of Iran, who had been deposed by the revolution, to enter the country for cancer treatment, triggering the assault on the embassy?” or, “Why did Carter wait for nearly six months before authorizing the rescue mission?” and, most baffling, “Why was there no full-scale dress rehearsal for Operation Eagle Claw before sending the helicopters into the desert?”
For those of us who followed the hostage crisis 40 years ago, “Desert One” revisits the frustrations raised by those questions, filling in the details of Carter’s failed policy toward Iran and the disastrous mission, while showing the courage, commitment of and and cost to the servicemen and their families.
For those who don’t know much about the hostage crisis, “Desert One” is indispensable, documenting not only the failed mission but the rift in U.S.-Iran relations and the ongoing Cold War-style conflict that continues today.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @KentWolgamott
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