Monday, November 11, 2019

DOC NYC Spotlight: Desert One

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its tenth year in New York City from November 6th-15th.

Desert One
Directed by Barbara Kopple
DOC NYC Screenings

Some of the boldest and most daring military operations aren’t known to the general public. Those that are successful and have momentous results are usually discussed, but not necessarily in great detail that reveals what actually went into them. Cinematic adaptations or investigations are the most common way in which stories are unveiled, profiled from start to finish with the underlying causes and unexpected consequences of a mission explored. Even if a good deal is known about a particular historical event, there’s always more going on behind the scenes that can lend more context and clarity.

In 1979, the Shah of Iran was given asylum in the United States by President Jimmy Carter, triggering further anti-American sentiment during the Iranian Revolution in the country. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage at the United States embassy in Tehran, a process that lasted more than a year. Negotiations between Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini were far from productive, with the American leader not getting anywhere and the situation worsening over time. Carter’s alternative: a rescue mission on Iranian soil, explored in detail in this documentary.

The Iran hostage crisis came into cinematic focus recently with the release and Oscar Best Picture victory for “Argo,” looking at the more extensive and ultimately successful rescue of six diplomats who managed to get out of the embassy. This documentary maintains some of the same playfulness from those who experienced it, looking back on a bit of the comedy in an otherwise deadly serious and dangerous context. It’s definitely hard to imagine laughing in the moment, and one hostage’s recollections of acting out and receiving ensuing punishment from the guards are conveyed in a startlingly gleeful manner.

This film smartly interviews those involved in many different ways, including American hostages, members of the Desert One operation, and Iranians present during its execution. Revisiting these events almost four decades later demonstrates how memories remain intact and how trivial this crisis seems when compared with current events. Hearing from Carter himself and former Vice-President Walter Mondale, two figures whose legacies are strongly associated with the hostages being released one minute after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, proves to be particularly powerful as they defend doing what they thought was best. It’s an interesting and educational look back at a chapter of history that could certainly have gone worse, and might have been curtailed considerably had this effort turned out positively.


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