(NR) **1/2 out of **** (Two and One-Half Out of Four Stars)
When he entered the Oval Office in January of 1977, former Georgia governor James Earl Carter, a/k/a Jimmy Carter, represented a new hope of sorts for a great number of Americans still reeling from the resignation of President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the bridge/patchwork administration of outgoing President Gerald Ford.
A man of humble origins used to relatively minor political skirmishes on a state level, Carter soon found himself at the center of multiple national and international maelstroms.
These ultimately proved to be beyond his limited capabilities, or control.
There was the "energy crisis" which doubled the price of gasoline, sent interest rates to the high double-digits. These, coupled with a practically absent foreign policy platform, soon sabotaged Carter’s administration not long after it left the starting gate.
If out of control inflation and hours-long lines for gas weren’t enough, Carter eventually found himself at the center of an international crisis decades in the making which marked one of the darkest stretch of days — 444 to be exact — in American history.
In her new documentary "Desert One," two-time Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple paints Carter as a tragic, yet somewhat sympathetic victim of his times; a man of faith with a huge heart attempting to deal with a situation far beyond his statecraft and negotiation skills.
Certainly not by design, "Desert One" picks up (with minor overlap) where "Coup 53" (reviewed on Newsmax.com previously) left off.
At one point in the film, Carter hosts a press conference on the South Lawn of the White House with the deposed Shah of Iran. During that appearance, protesters were in such close proximity their tear gas caused both the president and the shah to cover their mouths.
Thus, it was a telling and foreboding preamble, one which would soon cripple the Carter administration; a crippling from which it would never recover.
Employing an out-of-sequence narrative, Kopple does an excellent job of covering — in shorthand form — the history of the Iranian government from the early 1950s through the late 1970s.
Hypothetically, if Carter had been advised by, if not Ford, at least the brain trust of the American intelligence community, he either ignored what he was told or — thought it to be a secondary concern or just a pesky afterthought.
After nearly six months of stalled and misdirected negotiations with the Iranian terrorists, Carter finally took the advice of his more hawkish military leaders and approved a covert rescue mission dubbed "Operation Eagle Claw" (later renamed "Desert One").
Hindsight is always 20/20 and it’s easy to offer outside-looking-in Monday morning quarterbacking and commentary, but had Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale (both interviewed at length here) allowed the military to execute all facets of the operation, it might have succeeded.
Even after the mission was initiated, Carter and Mondale (via archival taped phone calls with the military) exhibited further tentativeness — the last thing soldiers entering harm’s way need from their commander in chief.
From the onset, Kopple follows the documentary filmmaker’s handbook, which works slightly more often than it doesn’t. She includes present-day interviews with well over two dozen military experts, witnesses, and survivors that all offer tremendous insight yet because of sheer volume, it all eventually becomes a cacophonous blur. Admirable as it is to be complete, Kopple’s "informational overreach" all too often drifts into overkill territory.
At the most crucial point where Kopple goes into detail regarding the attempted rescue of the American hostages, she makes the dicey decision of recreation via animation which, while visually interesting, it inadvertently turns the film into a lower-rent version of a similar passage from "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" (2003).
Although it's normal for documentaries to contain a wide array of source materials (news reels, stock footage, still photos, voiceovers, etc.), few if any include original animation and this is an instance where it simply doesn’t work.
Despite the many first and second act shortcomings, Kopple’s handling of the final half-hour ultimately pushes "Desert One" into recommendable viewing territory.
This portion of the movie is dedicated to Carter’s uphill re-election campaign and updates of soldiers and the hostages since their return to the U.S. nearly 40 years ago.
If you are under the age of 50 and have little or no understanding of the tumultuous relations between the U.S. and Iran, you need to watch (in order) "Coup 53," "Desert One" and finally "Argo" — director Ben Affleck’s Best Picture-winner from 2012.
When watching "Argo," please keep in mind it is not a documentary but an historical drama based on real events. In other words, it includes stuff that never happened and embellishes things that did.
They call this practice "artistic license."
For viewing options, visit https://www.desertonemovie.com/tickets/.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here."
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