It would be hard to imagine two US presidents less similar than Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump, but they have in common unexpected crises that challenged their leadership and threatened their hopes of reelection.
For Trump it is the COVID-19 pandemic. For Carter it was the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81. Trump has had many options at his disposal to handle the situation but so far has chosen none. Carter had almost no options and chose one that proved disastrous. Barbara Kopple, two-time Oscar winner for “Harlan County USA” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990), examines the latter case in her thrilling, illuminating account “Desert One.”
In a sense the country was reaping the consequences of its own reckless foreign policy. In 1953 the United States orchestrated a coup to oust the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in favor of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. (The coup is the subject of the new documentary “Coup 53.” Via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, it begins streaming Aug. 19, the 67th anniversary of the event.) The shah proved a brutal tyrant, a US puppet, and was widely despised. An uprising forced him to flee the country in 1979, allowing the exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini to return and establish an Islamic Republic.
The shah found refuge in the United States, putting Carter, a human rights advocate, in an awkward position and further fueling the Iranians’ hatred of America. On November 4, 1979, student demonstrators seized the US embassy and took the reduced staff of 52 hostage. Their captivity would last 444 days.
After months of futile diplomatic efforts, Carter agreed to send in a rescue mission. Kopple’s film details the complex plan, using animated reenactments and interviews with participants, including surviving members of the mission, former hostages, and Carter himself. It’s a thrilling account that is a kind of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) with a catastrophic ending. A series of mechanical failures and mishaps culminated in a helicopter colliding with a cargo plane, causing a fiery explosion in which eight servicemen were killed. This is all vividly and sometimes gruesomely recounted with archival footage and photos and the recorded communications between Carter and his generals.
The film also includes interviews with participants on the Iranian side, including a man who was 10 when the bus he was riding in inadvertently drove into the desert area where the mission was taking place — one of many unexpected developments that contributed to the unraveling of the plan — and was halted by US troops. He remembers being terrified but later bragging about his experience to his classmates at school. More chilling are the recollections of a former hostage taker, who describes how she felt seeing the charred corpses of the American dead put on public display. “It was very exciting to see their bodies,” she says. An official told them, “We have brought chocolate for you!”
Carter, interviewed today, still takes full responsibility and insists he made the right decision. Indeed, If not for bad luck the scheme might have worked and most likely he would have been re-elected. Instead Ronald Reagan, who made Carter’s seeming weakness in handling the crisis a key part of his campaign, won by a landslide.
Negotiations with the Iranians continued after the election, and in exchange for the unfreezing of some assets they released the hostages on January 20, 1981 — minutes after Reagan took the oath of office.
Some wondered if an arrangement had been made between the Iranians and Republicans to delay the hostage release until after the election. Among those who suspect this are some of the hostages themselves. Like Michael Metrinko, whose spirited resistance to his captors persisted to the end, when he insulted an abusive guard as they were being taken to the airport on the way back home. He was beaten up, pulled off the bus, and almost missed the flight. Asked what he thought about the suspicious timing of the release, Metrinko says, “Did the Reagan people or people around him deal with the Iranians to keep us in prison? I don’t know. My gut feeling is yes.”
Back then most people dismissed such claims as far-fetched conspiracy theories. Unlike today when foreign interference in our elections has become standard practice.
“Desert One” can be streamed starting Aug. 21 via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, the Cape Ann Community Cinema’s Virtual Cinema, and the Center for Arts Virtual Cinema, in Natick.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org