‘Desert One’ Review: Barbara Kopple Offers a Dry Look Back at the Iran Hostage Crisis

Legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple teams up with the History Channel for a valuable film that nevertheless lacks her signature insight.
Desert One Review: A Dry Barbara Kopple Doc on the Iran Hostage Crisis
"Desert One"

Observational documentarian Barbara Kopple has a long history of making herself seem invisible, but the vérité intimacy and anti-establishment zeal of Oscar-winning classics like “Harlan County, USA,” and “American Dream” suggest that her signature work couldn’t have been made by anyone else; Kopple isn’t absent from these films so much as she’s sublimated into the air they breathe. “Desert One” is different — you couldn’t find Kopple’s fingerprints on this comprehensive but incurious account of the Iran hostage crisis if you watched the movie through a magnifying glass. Valuable for its access yet limited by its lack of perspective, “Desert One” puts a human face on one of the late 20th century’s worst debacles while framing the whole thing in the passive voice, resulting in a film that boasts the immediacy of a testament but the resonance of a textbook. It’s a documentary that was produced by The History Channel, and it feels like one every step of the way.

There are worse things, of course, and Kopple unpacks what happened with an authority that will make “Desert One” essential viewing for students of modern history and/or diehard “Argo” fans eager to better contextualize Ben Affleck’s caper. Most of the major players involved in the Iran hostage crisis are here to offer their side of the story; from Walter Mondale and an especially wistful President Jimmy Carter to the soldiers involved in the catastrophic Operation Eagle Claw, the American hostages they were hoping to free, and even a handful of their Iranian captors. Everyone short of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan appears on camera to reflect on the events of April 24, 1980 (and the months of failed diplomacy leading up to it) and how they went FUBAR in a way that continues to ripple through the world today.

While certain themes organically emerge from the film’s uncomplicated mesh of archival footage, talking head interviews, and dashes of evocative but needless animation by Iranian artist Zartosht Soltani, Kopple seems less interested in interrogating abstract notions of heroism or the nature of “strong” American leadership than she is in suggesting that history is hard to parse from the inside out. There’s a warm-hearted empathy in Kopple’s unwillingness to assign blame (to anyone), and also in her obvious respect for Carter’s faith in diplomacy, but “Desert One” is mostly devoted to nailing this story down before everyone who lived it has died and the thoughts and feelings they experienced are petrified into cold fact. It’s a discordantly clean and contained overview of a mess that changed the world.

One of the first soundbites we hear from Kopple’s subjects is that most Americans don’t remember what happened during the Iran hostage crisis, and “Desert One” endeavors to walk us through it step-by-step. The film plays all the hits, unpacking the lyrics behind an entire verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as Khomeini abolishes the Iranian monarchy in 1979, the exiled Shah of Iran comes to the United States for medical treatment later that year, and Iranian students — outraged over Carter’s refusal to extradite the Shah for his crimes — seize the U.S. embassy in Tehran along with 52 American diplomats and civilians and the attention of their entire country.

While some people in his position may have seized on the opportunity to flex America’s muscle, Carter was profoundly reluctant to use military force, and that reluctance was interpreted (sometimes disingenuously) as a fatal symptom of the missing confidence the President had recently diagnosed in the national character. After six months of searching for a diplomatic solution, Carter finally signed off on a risky half-measure: a top-secret rescue mission led by an elite team on their first deployment (Kopple threads the haphazard inception of Delta Force into a parallel subplot of sorts, and in some ways the heart of her movie). Eight of the soldiers burned alive, none of them made it to the embassy, and the operation’s embarrassing failure helped shape the next decades of America’s self-image and foreign policy. Instead of victory, we got trickle-down economics; instead of exceptionalism, we got a third-rate movie star.

There’s a powerful sense of you-are-there excitement to a lot of this testimony, even if Kopple’s emphasis on Operation Eagle Claw tends to emphasize the American side of things in a way that isn’t justified by the film’s 360-degree approach. The Iranian captors aren’t demonized by any stretch, but the film’s vague approach to American valor has a funny way of overlooking the fact that many of these people would probably have been killed had Delta Force ever reached the embassy. One instance of conflicting accounts suggests that history may not be as settled as “Desert One” would like to imagine (an Iranian insists the hostages were treated well, but an American remembers having to sit in his own feces for days on end), but Kopple is quick to get back to page-turning procedural details about the crashes, and the bodies, and the prescient fact that America’s government was getting its intel from the nightly news.

“Desert One” occasionally hints at the broader fallout from these events, just enough for you to wish that Kopple had applied her expert-level interview skills towards more curious ends. She only had 20 minutes to question the 95-year-old Carter, and yet even in that small window of time, Kopple manages to expose the wavering anguish he clearly still harbors over the crisis. (The film also includes never-before-heard audio recordings of the calls he took during the operation, which are only worth listening to for how they capture the moment he’s forced to confront the worst failure of his presidency.) And yet, the precise nature of his misgivings is left to our imagination, as are his thoughts on how the experience affected his view on America’s subsequent displays of leadership. That disconnect is par for the course in a film so focused on creating an air-tight oral history of the hostage crisis that it often treats history like a vacuum.

Grade: B-

“Desert One” is now playing in theaters and in virtual cinemas via Greenwich Entertainment.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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