Forty years ago, a two-day, American rescue mission launched on April 24 to free the hostages held by Iran in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. For John Limbert, who was held hostage for more than a year during his role as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, it feels like yesterday.
Last fall, the documentary “Desert One” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, telling the story of Operation Eagle Claw, the secret mission to free the hostages.
“For better or worse, the film does bring back memories,” Limbert told We Are The Mighty.
“Memories fade, you don’t remember all the details and particularly when you’re in the middle of it, but that was one of the powers of the film.”
Desert One is a 107-minute documentary directed by Barbara Kopple. The film gives viewers an intimate look into the military response led by then-President Jimmy Carter to rescue 52 hostages that were being detained in Tehran, Iran in the U.S. Embassy and Foreign Ministry buildings. Ultimately, the mission was aborted due to unoperational helicopters, with zero hostages rescued, eight servicemen dead and several others severely wounded. The crisis received near 24-hour news coverage and is widely considered a component of Carter’s eventual landslide loss to Ronald Reagan.
Through interviews with hostages, Delta Force soldiers, military personnel and President Carter, as well as animation done by an Iranian artist intimately familiar with the topography of the country, Kopple’s film chronicles the mission from every aspect, taking care to tell the story through people who lived it, a detail that was paramount for the two-time Academy Award winner.
“You can’t tell a story unless you have a lot of different angles of people coming at it from different places,” Kopple said. “They’re all feeling something. Whether it’s the special operators, or the hostages, or the people in Carter’s administration – there are so many different elements to it, which is also why it drew us in. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. Why should we tell everything about the Americans’ experience and not tell everyone about the Iranian’s experience? We’ve got to know these things exist to communicate. That’s so important. It’s a tough thing to do, but a very important thing to do.”
The ill-fated Operation marked the emergence of special operations in the American military. In 1986, Congress passed the Nunn-Cohen Amendment, citing this tragedy as part of their justification. The amendment mandated the President create a unified combatant command for Special Operations, and permitted the command to have control over its own resources.
“The film captures the best of our military colleagues,” Limbert explained. “This wasn’t a suicide mission, but that’s what it was. They didn’t have to go, but they did it. I have nothing but admiration for them. It was me and my colleagues that they were trying to rescue. They were willing to do this for people they didn’t know. It’s absolutely amazing. That’s the strength of the film. That willingness to self sacrifice so beautifully.”
Added Kopple, “What I felt is that these guys were all willing to give up their lives for the rescue. That was incredible that they wanted to get the American hostages out and they were a team. Even if one of them doubted it, they thought … well my buddies are going. They all had each other’s back — that thing inside of them not to leave anybody behind. That was their duty and that was their job.”
For Kopple, the hardest part of the filmmaking process was tracking down President Carter to speak on camera for his role in the mission and how it impacted his presidential legacy.
“I tried for three months [to get access] and there’s a guy named Phil who works for his administration who would never call me back,” she said. “So I started to have a relationship with his voicemail. I would tell them all about filming and every few days, I would call and beg him, ‘Please let us film President Carter.’ Three months had gone by and Phil called, and he introduced himself and I said, ‘I know, I’d know your voice anywhere.'”
Kopple was eventually granted just 20 minutes of access to the former president for the making of the film.
“He gave us 19 minutes and 47 seconds and we used a lot of it in Desert One,” Kopple said.
Desert One is expected to be released in movie theaters in late 2020 or early 2021, with an eventual television debut on the HISTORY channel.
“When you’re [making a film], you don’t think – where will this show?” Kopple said. “Hopefully the film presents an opportunity for Iranian and American audiences to find healing and reconcile with this very complicated history, not to stereotype people, [and] to really see who people are as individuals.”