2020, NR, 107 min. Directed by Barbara Kopple.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 21, 2020
History is written by the victors: We accept that as a truism. Accomplishments and successes can feed an epic storyline and stoke a nation’s pride, while setbacks on the road to glory are generally shunted into footnotes and sustained only as fading memories.
Desert One recounts the American military debacle known as Operation Eagle Claw, which was launched on April 24, 1980, by President Jimmy Carter in an attempt to rescue 52 American hostages held captive by Iranian revolutionaries since November 1979. The mission was a colossal failure that was forced to abort before even reaching the embassy. Sadly, the doomed campaign caused the horrific deaths of eight rescuers, the destruction and abandonment of military equipment and aircraft, a national tarnishing of the idea of the invincibility of American might, and most certainly contributed to Carter’s loss of the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan. (The hostages, curiously, were released by the Iranians just minutes after Reagan’s swearing into office in January 1981.)
By the time the rescue mission was launched, nearly six months had passed since the hostage-taking, and President Carter was subject to heavy national criticism for his reluctance to use military force to regain U.S. citizens. But he was finally persuaded to deploy a Delta Force unit for a rescue mission. At this point in time, Delta Force was a newly formed specialized-mission unit of the army, and Eagle Claw was its first operation. Desert One, despite revisiting the mission’s multiple failures, is not interested in placing blame. Instead, the documentary is a living tribute to those who tried.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream, Shut Up & Sing) has a tendency to select documentary subjects that reveal something about our American character and politics. Desert One gathers a great number of living hostages and Delta Force team members to tell the story of the mission. She even gets Carter to sit for a rare interview about the matter, and also includes the testimonies of some Iranian hostage-takers and a man who witnessed the debacle in the desert as a child on an Iranian bus that stumbled into the mission by accident. This allows for a multiplicity of perspectives, which makes up for the film sometimes seeming like a series of talking heads. The lack of footage from the mission is compensated for with some striking two-dimensional animation by Zartosht Soltani.
It’s an evenhanded presentation, although I wish Kopple had probed more deeply into some other aspects of the story, such as the dawn of the “special forces era” and the Reagan campaign’s imputed involvement in keeping the hostages captive until the minute Carter was out of office. The film, which was produced by the History Channel, may not have had such questions as part of its mission-specific purview. However, what Desert One does accomplish in shining a light on this epic national failure is to celebrate the American can-do spirit and a noble willingness to go down trying.