Back in a more typical moviegoing year, sophisticated audiences were gripping their chair arms as a plucky group of American diplomats attempted to flee from the infamous Iranian hostage crisis. 2012’s Argo was and still is a rather gripping drama, even if the facts were a little eschewed. Finally, through the people that were there and lived to tell their story, a far more factual account of events has made the screen. Barbara Kopple’s (Harland County, U.S.A.) Desert One portrays a real-life mission of trial, error, and the eventual compensation. True heroics in a time of dread, something that could rather mirror 2020 in a subdued manner.
Even if this is your first time experiencing this piece of our nation’s historical footprint, it’ll be difficult not to feel at least a small shred of empathy toward this plight, and the failures behind it. “Operation Eagle Claw” was doomed from the start if it took five months for any action to be taken. Essentially, a 1980 rescue attempt to retrieve 52 hostages inside of Tehran’s US Embassy went off the rails immediately due to poor weather and technical misguidance. In a true show of disrespect, the Iranian population would later treat it as a site for tourism.
And Kopple confidently follows that empathic pulse like a dog to a stick, focused on a singular goal, but assessing every possible avenue. Like a great investigative hardcover. And the variety of interviewers shown is a testament to that ideal. From the journalists sharing every detail on a nightly basis; Ted Koppel is still unbelievably as calming and docile as ever. To the surviving Armed Forces members assigned to the rescue mission who recognize what went wrong and live with that pain every day. The captors, who don’t sugarcoat their motives. Those embroiled hostages themselves, whose bravery and resiliency left even this grizzled soul with a little tear in his eye. And even to President Carter, and key figures in his administration, whose skittishness to pursue the rescue was essential in denying him a second term. The American public’s trust just looked in the other direction.
Using a healthy amount of archival footage, animated recreations, and even newly uncovered audio recordings we’d never expect to hear otherwise, Koppel has a large enough toolbox to lift that veil and share the ups and downs of a rather tense situation for all involved. The mission itself was a very one-and-done situation; no time to prepare or rehearse. Have the right people on the ground and give it the best possible go. Poor execution, and absolutely zero oversight. I couldn’t help but grit my teeth in frustration witnessing such an avoidable screw-up. How Koppel handles the moments of that covert operation, under cover of night, is all told expertly. Perhaps more effectively than a larger-budget Hollywood adaptation could’ve done.
To hear, see, feel the responses between President Carter, those closest to him, and then to join that with the hostages’ counterreaction, a sobering effect comes into play. The inevitable sensation of a costly mistake for one’s fellow humans, that can stick with someone for life. And to see this administration, as well as the people they were attempting to save, own up to those mistakes? That is just as important as this story needing to be told overall. Desert One may stick with me, therefore, knowing this story is not just about the people closest to the conflict. In very small, subtle ways, it feels close to any American owning up to wrongdoing and doing so with dignity. In a year where we need that more than ever, here we have a wonderful documentary that has done its research and hit the heartbeat just right. (A-; ⅘ Horns Up!)
Desert One is streaming this weekend via virtual cinemas nationwide, including Seattle’s SIFF Cinema at siff.net; film not rated; 109 minutes.