A Military Rescue, A Moody Character Study and Existential Threat

At the Movies

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Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla in Michael Almereyda’s “Tesla.” Courtesy of IFC Films; an IFC Films Release.

Desert One
Forty years after it happened, the story of one of the most daring military rescue attempts in US history comes to the screen. The documentary feature “Desert One” recounts the April 24-25, 1980, attempt to rescue 52 US citizens who were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran in November 1979. The film comes from two-time Academy Award® winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA” and “American Dream”) who produced and directed the film (the documentary is rated “PG-13,” runs 89 mins., and is available streaming through AFI).

Kopple has incorporated a wealth of recently unearthed archival sources, as well as intimate interviews with President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, newscaster Ted Koppel, former hostages, journalists, and even Iranian student revolutionaries who orchestrated the take-over of the US Embassy in Tehran (who were filmed in Iran).

A grounded attack helicopter is examined by Iranian youngsters in the failed aftermath of the 1980 “Desert One” mission; photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

The film backgrounds the complex planning and intelligence-gathering necessary for the secret operation, which presumed landing eight helicopters into the southern Iranian desert (together with support aircraft) which were to fly to Tehran and rescue those held hostage. A disastrous landing—three copters becoming disabled—led to an aborted “Desert One” and an ignominious defeat. Kopple uses imaginative new animation to actualize an operation that was never filmed, while extolling the bold risk-taking and resolve of the enterprise.

Perhaps the most striking element of Kopple’s film is the never-before-heard live satellite phone recordings of President Carter talking to his generals right as the mission unfolds. These undramatic, “just the facts” exchanges, these breath-taking sequences will have viewers who lived through the raid both chilled and sucking in their breath. The same viewer may be both surprised and touched at the soft and diffident qualities of Carter’s voice, a man quelling an inside storm.

The director saw “Desert One” as a patriotic raid,  “… a roller coaster ride of a story well worth telling.” Barbara Kopple added: “It is a film about U.S. leadership and gumption, our leaders taking responsibility–even when things go wrong.”  She also emphasized the Iranian view:  “Hearing their side of the story can make us reflect. This is a story that few remember or even know and it might inspire us now.”

Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla in Michael Almereyda’s “Tesla.” Courtesy of IFC Films; an IFC Films Release.

Tesla
A moody character study might be the best way to describe the new bio-pic “Tesla,” covering the life of the Serbo-Croatian engineering genius and inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) who, through his adaption of alternating current (AC) to widespread use, helped electrify our world. Here he is incarnated by a grave and humorless Ethan Hawkes, shown with a serious ‘stache and perpetually wrinkled brow, peering into a world only he seems to fathom (the film is rated “PG-13,” runs 96 minutes,  and was released on streaming platforms in late August).

The plot provides a straightforward inventory of Tesla’s greatest hits in chronological order—contesting his AC against the DC of Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan), making deals with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), designing power plants, lighting the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,  inventing the Tesla Coil, collaborating with financier J.P Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz)—all somberly and lovingly shot if not always fully explained.

At intervals, we have a running narration by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), J.P.’s daughter, who describes Tesla’s experiments and experiences and whose presence comes off as an intermittent tease of an emotive relationship with the scientist which never comes off-–he was a stone bachelor.  Her narration provides another distancing factor to a film that is already detached.  FYI: the Anne character, while real, had no personal connection to Tesla. Neither did actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), a Tesla contemporary, who flits through the film as a period marker.

Director-writer Michael Almeryda has had a most varied career in both feature and documentary film, including an intriguing contemporary version of  “Hamlet (2000),” also with Hawkes.  Filming in New York and Brooklyn over 20 days, he has made “Tesla” look sumptuous on a low budget—shooting deep black backgrounds and detailed painted backdrops to construct an effective aesthetic.  But, sadly, he just hasn’t found the necessary—uh-“spark”—to make this bio-pic come fully alive.

(Note: In one of those odd movie coincidences, “Tesla” goes over ground assayed recently in “The Current War” (2017), which also told a version of the Edison-Westinghouse-Tesla rivalries with the protagonists played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult, respectively.)

UNFIT: DC in the Movies
In the last year, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, there has been a mini-deluge of films and television programs about the “existential threat” to our democracy by the Trump Administration, a period so outside our political norms that, for many, our republic has seemed in peril. Some of these efforts were sardonic, some sarcastic, some earnest. Perhaps feeling their tone was becoming somewhat repetitive, a few Trump critics developed a new cinematic attack, this time focused pointedly on the president’s mental health. “UNFIT: The Psychology of Donald Trump” tries to make the case that he suffers from a psychiatric malady called “malignant narcissism” which make him unsuited for national office. (The film is not rated, runs 83 minutes, and became available on digital streaming platforms on September 1).

The director of “UNFIT,” Dan Partland, in an introductory note on the film, acknowledges up front that it will be seen as “partisan and preaching to the converted,” but he insists that, while it may be “preaching to anyone who will listen,” its goal is to “provide language and a framework for lay people to benefit from the decades of science and research that has studied these behaviors.”

One leading voice in the film is  Dr. John Gartner, a psychologist and founding member of  the “Duty to Warn “ coalition aimed at removing Trump from office because of his mental deficiencies. He is joined by several other psychiatrists, as well as commentators often seen on cable TV, figures like Malcom Nance, Anthony Scaramucci, Bill Kristol, and George Conway, co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, all of whom narrate behind a parade of clips illustrating Trump’s most daffy statements and egregious lies.

A ready criticism of the film can be made that none of the experts interviewed have ever had a personal interview with the President, so their interpretations amount to hearsay or mere opinion. The filmmakers, too, acknowledge in advance that lack of personal interaction but argue that there is enough in Trump’s observed behavior to make their psychiatric case.

I’m not sure DC viewers will have much to learn from “UNFIT,” but they can be sure to have their political wounds somewhat assuaged but their rage left intact.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.