Desert One (Kopple, 2019)

I will put my disclosures up front rather than as postscripts. My father was one of 52 American hostages in Tehran from 1979-81. He taught me to respect the military men and women who protected us personally when we lived overseas. He never expressed general condemnation of Iran or the Iranian people to me, but neither did he sugar coat what a group of them did to him and his colleagues.

A less important disclosure: Barbara Kopple is one of my favorite directors and a huge influence on my love of documentary film. I’d almost always rather suffer in disappointment than say something bad about one of her films.

Desert One is Kopple’s chronicle of the Iranian hostage saga, with a clear focus on the aborted rescue mission that cost eight military men their lives. It earns a thumbs up from me — how could it not — because these men deserve to have their story told, and there were details about that story that I didn’t know. Nevertheless, the film frustrated and angered me in spots, and I left uncertain of its point of view even while appreciating the central forty-five minutes or so that chronicled the details of the fatally flawed mission.

Kopple’s films, it seems to me, are more often resonant when she is personally invested in the subject, or at least more narrowly focused. Shut Up and Sing!, Miss Sharon Jones, and the sadly underrated Running From Crazy all moved me much more deeply even though I lacked a personal connection to the material. The films became my personal connection to the material.

Desert One by contrast, feels more like a clip show, an assortment of talking heads without a directorial presence or editorial point of view. That may well have been a choice — even a defensible one — but when, for example, participants in the hostage taking spout bullshit about how well they treated the hostages (because, you know, the Koran said they should), I wanted the film to at least push back rather than depend on the viewer to evaluate and adjudicate the discrepancies between their characterizations and the more detailed and credible testimony from the hostages themselves of just a few of the specific ways they were tortured. (The specific examples the film provided are not even the worst examples of the torture I’ve heard described by those who were subjected to it.)

Barbara Timm, the mother of one of the hostages who apologized to the Iranian people for the rescue attempt is given an inordinate amount of screen time, and while the reporters in the archival clips interrogate her about whether she expects any criticism for throwing the men who died trying to save her son under bus, the film itself seems reluctant to press the issue beyond a late clip from her son saying maybe her actions seemed right to her. Significantly, and disappointingly, we don’t actually get the question he was responding to.

I adore Jimmy Carter, but even he manages to piss me off when, late in the movie, he takes solace in the fact that “all” the participants in the operation were “volunteers” who didn’t “have to” go. I didn’t need to rewind to the previous comments from those participants, a few of whom articulated bluntly the we-answer-the-call mentality of special forces, to know that such a claim was disingenuous at best. Carter was, of course, a naval officer, and I think he should probably understand military mindset and culture well enough to know such a claim is laughable, if not risible. Years after my father’s release he shared with some of his children the belief that the Iranians wanted the marines at the embassy to shoot so that they could have a martyr and an excuse to just go through the compound and kill everyone; the only reason he was alive, he said at the time, was because Marines follow orders even when they aren’t the orders they want. I digress, however. My point is that while the seeds of contradiction are sown within the movie, the film relies on us to sift them, and that feels to me like an easy out.

What I’m not conflicted about are the comments from the military operators themselves and their families, few if any of whom have been given the same degree of attention as the hostages over the years. The tone of their voices when they talk about the charred bodies of their comrades being celebrated over in Tehran can’t be described, they can only be felt. The non-chalance with which they speak of their training leading them to walk orderly out of a blazing airplane is something that no amount of Hollywood imitation can numb one towards.

I’ve carried a lot of guilt over my life for the men who died, sometimes leaving their sons without fathers so that I could have mine. So if the countenance of the hostages themselves reminded me of my father and the affect of the soldiers reminded me of service men and women I have known, the emotions of those who found their early lives touched by this tragedy were the most familiar of all.

I winced when one related being told not to cry after learning of his father’s death, because I recalled the emotional amputations I underwent so as to not look bad on television or allow the expressions of my unalleviated suffering to add to the burdens of those who already had more than they could handle without taking on my own pain as well. But I also nodded when one, now a surgeon, spoke with gratitude of the “opportunities” he had been afforded by his father’s surviving colleagues who insured all his educational expenses would be covered.

The hardest thing to explain about tragedy to those who haven’t lived through it is that rarely passes without some good coming from it, and it’s impossible not to be grateful for that good even if it wasn’t proportionate to the pain and suffering. While my father was a hostage, I met prisoners of war who told and showed me that worse trauma than what I was experiencing was survivable. After he returned, he met Holocaust survivors who called him, completely without irony, brave. There is a sort of fraternity among those who suffer that is deeper and far more holy than the camaraderie of those driven by united interests to inflict it. (That’s part of the reason why Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one of my most cherished films.) What Desert One captures so well, for which I am grateful, is that it is possible for some exceptional people to experience both the camaraderie of unified purpose and the fraternity of shared wounds. God bless every one of them.

“Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account” (Ecclesiastes 3: 15)

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