Review: Riveting Desert One Recounts a Pivotal Moment in (Failed) International Diplomacy

Two-time Academy-Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.; American Dream) helms Desert One, a straightforward but wholly satisfying recounting of the 1980 failed rescue attempt by U.S. Special Forces of American hostages held captive in Iran. Told entirely by those who were directly involved in the events surrounding that tragic event—including former hostages, members of the would-be rescue team, their families, journalists, former President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale and even one-time Iranian student revolutionaries (who offer a very different viewpoint of the events)—the film pieces together a riveting and highly emotional story of bravery and what can only be described as a perfect storm of bad luck.

Desert One
Image courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Kopple sets the stage in Iran and America perfectly, beginning with the Shah of Iran coming to power decades earlier than the events in the film and how he was perceived as an American puppet by his fellow countrymen. But he was also a merciless dictator who killed many citizens who disagreed with and defied him. He fled the country for the U.S. in 1979, leaving the Ayatollah Khomeini able to return (after his own 15-year banishment) to take over and bring Muslim rule to the country. That same year, a group of loyal students stormed the American embassy and another diplomatic building (both in Tehran) and took 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for what ended up being 444 days, the group demanding the Shah’s return to Iran in order to put him on trial.

In addition to walking us through the long and fruitless negotiations that Carter entered into to free the hostages, the film makes the fairly obvious case that his refusal to immediately use a show of force in the matter cost him a re-election (he was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan, who talked a great deal of trash about Carter’s diplomacy). Many in the film believe that not only did the Iranians make secret deals with Reagan’s staff to release the hostages on the same day as his inauguration (one minute after he took the oath of office, in fact), but that as a result, the hostages were held longer than necessary to guarantee the timing worked.

But the most powerful and moving section of the film is the telling of the how the operation itself went from bad to worse—unexpected sandstorms rolling in; using night vision technology that was primitive at the time; landing near a reportedly little-traveled road that ended up being quite busy that night; and the ill-fated, on-the-ground collision of a helicopter and a transport plane that caused the deaths of several of the rescuers in an ungodly fire. The emotions from the survivors, who had to leave their fellow soldiers while the plane was still burning, are still raw, and the images of the charred remains are going to haunt me for quite some time. Even more, the way some of the Iranian interviewees talk about that day in celebratory terms may be difficult for some to hear.

Kopple uses a combination of new interviews, a wealth of archival news reports and other never-before-seen footage (some shot by Iranian cameramen) as well as impressive animations to fill in some of the details where no footage exists in order to create a complete, truly tense and deeply important story. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this tale is that the mission had already been aborted when the accident happened, so in theory, no one should have died that night. By allowing those who went though this event tell their stories from different perspectives, the filmmaker allows for a clear and complete account, and the impact is infinitely stronger and the heroic efforts are seen as that much more so. And this incident is one of the last times that multiple people in power—beginning with President Carter—took responsibility for giving the green light to a mission that perhaps wasn’t ready to happen. Desert One is not always an easy film to watch, but that makes it all the more essential and not easily forgotten.

The film will be available to stream through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from Your Sofa series beginning Friday; it will then be available on VOD on September 4.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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