Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Barbara Kopple's Desert One: Broken Wings

A scene from Barbara Kopple's Desert One.

Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted attempt by a Delta Force crew in April 1980 to rescue fifty-two U.S. hostages held in Tehran by revolutionary students in the thrall of Ayatollah Khomeini, doomed Jimmy Carter’s bid for re-election, sealing the popular impression, encouraged by Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric, that he was a milky, ineffectual peacenik who had no idea what to do when faced with the radical aggression of a foreign nation. Four decades later Barbara Kopple’s somber, mournful documentary Desert One presents the mission not as a slip-up but as a tragedy – eight American military were killed when one of the helicopters, its pilot blinded in a sandstorm, collided with a transport in the desert before the rescue team could enter the city – with Carter, who owned the disaster and rode out of the White House on its broken wings, as its face. Interviewed now, he still looks scarred by it, not because of its political implications for him but because of its human cost. Here was a president who steadfastly refused to use the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of hostages as a provocation for a war with Iran but who arranged for a rescue attempt as a last-ditch solution if diplomacy proved to be futile (as of course it did), and who wound up with casualties incurred outside any field of battle.

Kopple includes a range of points of view, including that of Nightline news anchor Ted Koppel, (who still believes that Carter’s response to the takeover was disastrously weak), that of one of the student revolutionaries (who, with her comrades, celebrated the horrendous fiery deaths of the American servicemen) and that of an Iranian man who, as an eleven-year-old boy, was aboard the bus that happened to encounter the Delta Force team in Tabas and, temporarily their prisoner, witnessed the disaster. But the most eloquent and moving of the interviewees are the survivors – both hostages, all of whom were released just in time for Reagan’s victory speech in November, and members of the Delta Force team. (Others include Carter’s VP, Walter Mondale, and the head of his re-election campaign, Gerald Rafsoon.) Aside from Carter, the main characters are three of the hostages: John Limbert and Michael Metrinko from the U.S. Foreign Service and Kevin Hermening, a Marine assigned to Iran as a guard to the Embassy. Limbert had joined the Peace Corps as an English teacher and met his wife in Iran; they’d made a life there, though he initially turned down the chance to work in the Foreign Service because he objected to America’s close relations with the Shah, whose overthrow and whose subsequent sanctuary in the U.S. precipitated the invasion of the Embassy and the hostage-taking. Metrinko was one of the few members of the Foreign Service invited to stay on in Tehran after the turnover of the government because he was fluent in Farsi – and his anger against his captors after more than four hundred days as a prisoner almost derailed his return to the States. (This is one of the most colorful side stories in the movie.)

Hermening is the most interesting of the hostages Kopple includes, partly because of his gentleness and reflectiveness but also for reasons that initially had little to do with his character. His mother, Barbara Timm, was for a while one of the focal points of the hostage crisis. Before the U.S. imposed a travel ban on Americans traveling to Iran, she arranged a trip there while her son was a captive and secured a twenty-minute visit with him; then, when the rescue mission failed, she was vocal in her criticism of Carter’s handling of the situation, incurring the fury of the families who had lost husbands and fathers and sons in the explosion in the desert. Now sixty (though he looks about thirty-five), Hermening has a complicated reaction to his mother’s behavior as well as to his own good fortune at getting out of Iran alive: though they failed, he sees the eight men who died trying courageously to rescue him and the others as part and parcel of his having been handed the rest of his life. When Kopple’s lucid, affecting documentary was over, the images I couldn’t get out of my head – aside from the horror-movie ones of the burned corpses – were of the soldiers and fliers and Marines who struggle unsuccessfully to remain stoic as they recall Operation Eagle Claw and those of Kevin Hermening’s face as he examines the contradictory and inextricably linked elements of an experience that still haunts him.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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