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Desert One by Barbara Kopple

The documentary feature film “Desert One” from two time Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA,” “American Dream”) will premiere on The History Channel on Sunday, September 12th at 8pm ET/PT.

The film tells the story of the failed US rescue attempt of American hostages being held at the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1980, and features interviews with senior members of the Carter administration, including President Jimmy Carter and the late Vice President Walter Mondale, journalist Ted Koppel, former hostages, members of the Delta Force team involved in the rescue attempt, and Iranian hostage-takers and witnesses to the rescue attempt.

It has been called “the most audacious, difficult, complicated, rescue mission ever attempted.” “Desert One” uniquely blends emotion and bravado to tell the incredible tale of America’s secret mission to free the hostages of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Kopple uses a wealth of unearthed archival sources and receives unprecedented access, engaging in intimate conversations with many of the soldiers closest to the story, some for the first time. Evocative new animation brings audiences closer than anyone has ever gotten to being on the inside for this history-making operation.

This is the thrilling story of a group of Americans working together to overcome the most difficult problem of their lives. Among those Americans is President Carter, readying to face a re-election challenge when self-described student revolutionaries suddenly take power in Iran. Anti-American students take the U.S. embassy in Tehran by force and hold hostage fifty-two American diplomats and citizens. If the president takes aggressive military action, as many pundits advocate, he believes the hostages will be killed. That outcome is simply not one he is willing to accept. Publicly he takes a posture of pursuing diplomatic talks as his only answer, knowing this will create a perception of weakness that may be exploited by his opponents, but in secret he green-lights the training for a rescue mission.

Like President Carter, America’s Special Forces are also in uncharted territory as they ready for this one-of-a-kind operation. “Special ops” are today used with great frequency by the U.S. military, but then few had been attempted — and none of such scale and complexity. Those who volunteer for the mission are forced to largely invent from scratch the techniques and strategies to accomplish Carter’s goal. They know what faces them is daunting, but they are driven by a deep empathy toward the kidnapped Americans in Tehran. Someone has to have “the guts to try,” they tell themselves, and they determine they will be the ones. Most have never worked together, drawn from several different military branches. Lingering doubts begin to fade as they train for the mission. News of the crisis dominates their TVs most nights, yet they cannot tell their families what they are about to undertake. Finally, the day arrives, April 24, 1980, and the heart-pounding and unforeseen events experienced by this rare group will forever unite them.

“It was touching and revelatory for me to find another side of these special ops soldiers and Iranians that we don’t often see,” says director Barbara Kopple, “to sit down for such personal conversations with so many about a story that still clearly matters very much to them.” She takes a humanistic approach to a thrilling story, drawing out insider details that offer new understandings about what took place. Reflecting back on their experiences all these years later, fresh emotion and insights surface, not only from military warriors and the Carter administration but also former hostages, the families back home and, perhaps most powerfully, people of Iran.

This is not only an American story but an Iranian one. Kopple brought on an Iranian crew for original filming inside that country, finding many touched by these events who had for too long been overlooked. One extraordinary new account comes from an Iranian man who had been an 11-year-old boy riding a bus through the desert on the night of the mission, when his family was detained by American soldiers.

At a moment when tensions once again rise between the governments of Iran and the U.S., old wounds remain painfully current for many on each side who detail their recollections in Desert One — but talk of hope also emerges, that the lessons of the past might finally guide us to a better future.

Watch the official trailer for Desert One.

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