DESERT ONE is an Absorbing Tribute to an American Tragedy

A documentary master explores one of the most daring rescue missions ever attempted.

When discussing her new documentary, Desert One, at a stop on the festival circuit last November, director Barbara Kopple recalled the story of how she was able to secure an interview with President Jimmy Carter for the film. The two-time Oscar-winner told the audience about how she repeatedly called up the head of The Carter Center in Atlanta, leaving a voicemail introducing herself, the project and her strong wish to have President Carter’s participation. Having received no reply, the filmmaker proceeded to call every day for three months and eventually developed a relationship with the voicemail box, leaving messages which ranged from cheery to desperate.

Finally, Kopple was told she could have 20 minutes to interview the President, with any before and after small talk counting as part of the allotted time. It may not seem like the full amount of time needed to interview who is perhaps the most visible figure of the events Kopple’s film is based on. But in actuality, it proved to be more than enough time since Desert One is about the many components at home and abroad who played a part in a piece of history that’s finally being explored on the level it deserves.

The interweaving of vintage footage and new interviews, along with stunning animation is used to recount one of the most shocking events in American history centered around the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979. Featuring reflections and commentary from President Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, journalist Ted Koppel, as well as members of the Delta Force, hostages and hostage takers, Kopple explores the many players involved in Operation Eagle Claw, one of the most daring rescue attempts ever made.

It isn’t long into viewing Desert One that the audience realizes they’re watching one of the strongest documentaries of the year. Much of this has to do with its carefully laid out structure. The film is bookended with just the right amount of context to give everything that came before the rescue, including America’s history with the Shah of Iran, Carter’s emergence and eventual victory in becoming President and the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran. Fittingly, the film concludes by showing Ronald Reagan assuming the presidency at the same time the hostages are released and the effects of the mission of the men who undertook it and their families. Kopple pieces together precisely the right elements to give a sense of both worlds at the time. When Desert One focuses on the preparation and execution of the mission itself, the film is at its absolute strongest. The wealth of well-used archival footage manages a real sense of place and makes a great juxtaposition with present-day interviews.

Meanwhile, there’s possibly no better way to illustrate the events of the beyond-risky mission than through the graphic novel-type animation. Kopple mixes the three methods so strikingly that Desert One never runs the risk of becoming a dry, historical talking head piece, but instead maintains a pulsating energy and excitement that rivals most Hollywood action thrillers. Speaking of the interviewees, it cannot be overstated just how meticulous the director was in choosing her subjects. Besides Carter (each of those 20 minutes proves valuable), the descriptions from hostages recalling what it was like to be held prisoner, the feeling of liberation illustrated by a couple of the students who overtook the embassy and the men who were there on the ground on that fateful night in the Iranian desert not only gives the film an abundance of vantage points, but ensures that the full scope of Desert One is heard and understood.

In spite of the harrowing events it depicts, there’s a true excitement and fascination to Desert One. Maybe it’s because the mission itself is so rarely explored to this length that it’s hard not to believe that it had the ability to work; that the hostages would have been rescued, Carter would have won re-election and history would not have known Operation Eagle Claw as the tragedy it went down as. The animation has a great to deal with the documentary’s exhilarating nature. There’s something about this beautiful art, so fun and vibrant, set against this incredibly tragic event which makes watching it even more compelling than it naturally already is.

If it sounds like I haven’t talked too much about the specifics of the mission itself and how it failed, it’s because after watching it twice, I don’t think I can. The nerve it took, the scale of risk and the emotional toll it left on those who participated are all spotlighted here, making the gravity of the mission and its lingering effects unbelievably palpable. Watching former Delta Force members choke back tears in 2019 is just as visceral and gut wrenching as the moment Carter is informed of the mission’s failure by phone (heard through never-before-released satellite calls), which are used here in one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Never once does one get the feeling that Kopple is using such moments for dramatic effect (although they certainly do succeed in that capacity). Instead, the filmmaker goes this route to ensure that the full emotional weight and the ghosts which remain long after are not just acknowledged, but more importantly, never forgotten.

Since its release back in 2012, many have considered Ben Affleck’s Argo as the ultimate word on this period of American history. While that film’s heart is in the right place (even if it embellishes as many facts as it can while still somehow managing to call itself a true story), its overall comment is problematic. Desert One instead ends up being the exact opposite in this regard. It’s researched within an inch of its life and crafted by a filmmaker who you feel is invested in the events as much as the figures she’s interviewing about it (or at least, as much as possible).

In the end, Kopple’s film takes a footnote of history and expands on it, giving it so much in terms of honor recognition, respect and admiration. One moment featuring Lt. John Pustay, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, gives the perfect summation of the audacious mission and its significance, driving home the essence and heart of the film. Talking about a meeting between him and the President shortly before the mission took place, Pustay recalls: “Carter said ‘If we are successful, it’ll be your achievement. If we are NOT successful, it’ll be my defeat.’” Prophetic words, for sure, and yet another reminder of how much depended on one single mission.

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