Desert One: Accomplishment, by David Bax
In Desert One, acclaimed documentarian Barbara Kopple employs the talents of animator Zartosht Soltani, who has worked with Michael Moore on multiple occasions. Moore tends to use animation to make his simplified arguments digestible but Kopple allows Soltani to shine. He brings the recollections of Desert One‘s interviewees to such vivid and suspenseful life that you may start to wonder if this story wouldn’t be better told as a Kathryn Bigelow-style thinking person’s thriller. As the film progresses, though, you’ll see that dramatizing a little-discussed piece of history is secondary to Kopple’s goal of letting you look into the eyes of the men involved on all sides of it and see if and how it’s changed them 40 years later.
In 1979, 52 American citizens were kidnapped and held hostage in Iran, where they would ultimately remain for fourteen months. While President Jimmy Carter publicly sought diplomatic resolutions, he also okayed a covert rescue mission called Operation Eagle Claw. On April 24th, 1980, the mission got as far as its staging location outside Tehran–dubbed Desert One–when calamity struck.
In addition to the animation and the talking head interviews, Kopple makes extensive use of archival footage. The hostage crisis was exhaustively covered in the media, giving her plenty to work with. But in a novel move, she also includes clips from what appear to be Iranian movies, giving us a picture of the country not as we would have seen it on the news but as it would have liked to imagine itself.
Desert One’s most marketable selling point is the marquee names who show up to tell their sides of the story. Carter himself opens what are clearly still painful wounds. We get a fuller, more human picture of Walter Mondale than most of us who aren’t Vice Presidential history buffs have likely ever considered. And Ted Koppel, whose legacy was cemented as the host of Nightline–a show created specifically to cover the hostage crisis–obviously has plenty of information to offer.
Yet the most valuable insight, not to mention the emotional heft, comes from the interviewees whose names you are less likely to know, from hostages like Kevin Hermening to the then-young Iranian men involved in the hostage taking like Faizeh Moslehi (now a professor of theology) to a witness named Mahmoud Abedini who lived near Desert One as a boy and saw the events in person. And, of course, there are the many, harrowing testimonials of the surviving American military men, including not one but two Buckys and a Staff Sergeant Sanchez whose nickname is “Taco.”
On the surface, Desert One would appear to be a narrative of military heroics the likes of which suburban dads watch on cable on weekend afternoons. But as the failures of Operation Eagle Claw compound and turn fatal, Kopple turns toward–but stops just short of–a full-throated critique of that sort of product. She honors the commitment and sacrifice of these soldiers and marines while reminding us that the missions and ventures we tend to glorify are often exercises in pure terror and confusion.