Producers: Barbara Kopple, David Cassidy and Eric Forman   Director: Barbara Kopple   Cast: Jimmy Carter   Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment

Grade: B

On November 4, 1979, as already-existing rage against the United States grew in the newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran after President Jimmy Carter allowed the exiled Shah to come to New York for medical treatment, a crowd of demonstrators seized the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage.  The captives were held for four hundred and forty-four days, not being released until after Carter had been defeated in his bid for re-election and only minutes after Ronald Reagan had taken the oath of office as his successor on January 20, 1981.  (There is speculation that Reagan associates colluded with Iran to postpone the release to coincide with his inauguration, which, if true, was a pretty dastardly act.  But of course, relations with Iran would later entrap Reagan in the Iran-Contra mess.)   

For more than a year Carter seemed helpless to deal with the crisis, exacerbating the American public’s growing belief that he was ineffectual and contributing to his defeat in 1980.  He did, however, decide after months of failed attempts at negotiation to attempt a rescue operation.

Unhappily, it ended as a fiasco as equipment failed, the weather turned bad, Iranian civilians blundered into the landing site code-named Desert One, and a fuel truck was set ablaze.  In an attempt to abort the mission, a helicopter crashed into the cargo plane, setting it afire and resulting in eight casualties whose bodies had to be left behind to be used in triumphant Iranian broadcasts.  The mission’s failure cemented the public perception that Carter was in over the head and contributed to his re-election defeat.

Barbara Kopple’s expert documentary chronicles the failed mission, offering a detailed account replete with archival material, graphics, reconstructions, and—most importantly—new interviews with Carter, some of the surviving members of the Delta Force that manned the operation and a number of the hostages, as well as with Iranians who participated in the hostage-taking or supporting it, or who were inadvertently caught up in the catastrophe that occurred on the ground. 

It also includes, for the first time, recordings of calls made between Carter and General David C. Jones. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as the operation was ongoing.  The President’s composure as things unraveled is astonishing, as when he wryly inquires why it was decided to choose a landing site adjacent to a highway.   

All the material, including the new interview footage shot by Asad Faruqi, Gary Griffin, Gelareh Kiazand and Thomas Kaufman, has been elegantly assembled by Kopple and her editors Francisco Bello and Fabian Caballero.  And Wendy Blackstone contributes a supportive but unobtrusive music score.  

“Desert One” is a moving depiction of a sad but strangely uplifting episode in recent American history, one that makes you feel empathy for all involved.