Movies about American military operations tend to be about glorious victories, since we love our winners and prefer to forget about our losers. At first glance, you might think Barbara Kopple’s new documentary Desert One also celebrates a triumph of American military might, but, in truth, it offers something far more interesting: a detailed and unflinching look at Operation Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 attempt to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran.
A little backstory may be in order, given that many Americans can’t tell Iraq from Iran. In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh began nationalizing Iran’s petroleum industry, which was largely controlled by a British corporation, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Meanwhile, the United States feared Communist influence in Iran, and thus the CIA organized and the Brits supported a 1953 coup d’état that resulted in the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, becoming the country’s leader. The Shah’s regime, supported by the United States (the CIA trained Iran’s secret police), was noted for corruption, cruelty, and repression, and in 1979 it was overthrown and Ruhollah Kohmeini (Ayatollah Khomeini) assumed power.
Given the history of the two countries, anti-American feeling already ran high in Iran in 1979, and many Iranians were further angered because the exiled Shah was allowed to enter the United States rather than being forced to stand trial in Iran. On Nov. 4, 1979, a group of demonstrators occupied the American embassy in Tehran and took those inside hostage. A few escaped, including the six whose story was featured in Argo, and some were released for humanitarian reasons, but 52 remained prisoners for more than a year.
President Jimmy Carter was under great pressure to “solve” the hostage crisis. Of course, it’s easy for armchair quarterbacks to say what should be done, but Desert One will give you an appreciation for how complex a problem Carter faced, and how easily, in real life, things can go wrong. Operation Eagle Claw began with eight helicopters, but three were not fully operational by the time they arrived at Desert One, the first staging area in Iran. Following guidelines established before the mission began, the mission was aborted, but in the process of withdrawal a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft, resulting in a fire that killed eight servicemen (warning for the faint of heart—you will see incinerated corpses). No hostages were freed, Iran celebrated the American disaster as their victory, and Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
Desert One is composed primarily of interviews and archival footage, and the voices heard include a broad range of people including politicians and soldiers, their family members, and Iranian civilians and hostage takers. Inclusion of the latter is particularly notable, and demonstrates how much effort Kopple and her team put into making this film a comprehensive treatment of its subject, rather than simply relying on easily-available and mainstream-acceptable points of view. Besides creating a gripping film on an important and difficult subject, Kopple proves with Desert One that you can get great results using traditional means of documentary filmmaking. To put it another way, I’m eternally grateful that she doesn’t rely on re-enactments, which threaten to become a default option in documentary production today.
You may not be familiar with the name of Barbara Kopple, but you should be—she has 43 credits as a director in imdb.com, as well a slew of honors including winning two Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, for Harlan County U.S.A.(1977) and American Dream (1991). She’s also worked in TV, and won a Director’s Guild of American Dramatic Series Award for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. | Sarah Boslaugh
Desert One is playing in select theaters across the country, and is also available for streaming. Further information is available from the movie’s website. It’s not currently playing in any St. Louis theaters, but you can access it for streaming purposes through theaters in other locations.