For millennials, it’s pretty hard to understand just how big of a deal the Iranian hostage crisis was in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Master documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) attempts to recapture the anxiety and uncertainty that loomed over the nation during this frightening period of history with her latest film, Desert One.
Focusing mostly on Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to put together a successful rescue mission in 1980 and the special ops team that participated in the assignment, Desert One — the code name of the operational staging area for the failed rescue attempt in Iran — tells its story with archival news footage, animated interludes and plenty of interviews from each of the surviving members of the rescue team, plus news anchors like Ted Koppel and even former President Carter himself.
These are not groundbreaking documentary techniques, however, and the greatest detriment to the film is its matter-of-fact presentation of the story in a way that can sometimes feel a bit too much like a history lesson. Still, the people prove to be so fascinating and are emotionally open about the events — even in their old age — that it never seems monotonous.
One of the strongest elements of Desert One is how it frames the hostage crisis and Iran’s revolution as a whole from the point of view of the Iranians themselves. Among the slew of interviewees are former officials of Iran’s government, as well as those who participated in storming the American embassy and keeping the hostages in line. For an event that has long been viewed as a traumatic one in the eyes of U.S. citizens, Kopple deserves acclaim for her ability to remain somewhat unbiased on the issue.
Nevertheless, the filmmaker doesn’t lessen the importance of the soldiers’ sacrifices in the aftermath of the failed rescue attempt. Aside from the mission’s lack of success, lives were lost, and seeing these veterans recounting the tragedy of losing their fellow soldiers really got to me. The audio clip of Carter receiving the news of their deaths for the first time is also one of the most powerful moments of the film and will make many viewers long for the day when we had a commander-in-chief who was actually capable of empathy.
Available to rent starting Aug. 21 via fineartstheatre.com and grailmoviehouse.com