'Desert One': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
The real-life military disaster before 'Argo.'

Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple ('American Dream') revisits the botched 1980 Delta Force operation that was meant to resolve the Iran hostage crisis.

A military documentary that highlights a major defeat instead of a victory, Barbara Kopple’s Desert One revisits the failed 1980 Delta Force mission — known as Operation Eagle Claw — that was supposed to rescue 52 hostages who were trapped for over a year at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. A logistical nightmare that resulted in the death of eight soldiers and, some believe, Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the presidential election, the seemingly minor event would have a significant political impact over the next decade and is still seen as a low point in late-20th century American history.

Kopple, who’s known for her cinema vérité-style docs like Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream, applies a more classical approach here (Desert One was made for the History Channel), mixing one-on-one interviews with tons of archive footage and military documents to cover the mission from all angles. The result is a film that can be somewhat conventional in form, including a score that overdoes it on the pathos, but one that still provides a fascinating deep dive into organized failure.

Cutting between the specifics of the operation and the broader historical and political context surrounding it, Kopple gives us both a comprehensive background of the Iran hostage crisis and the military undertaking that was meant to be a way out of it. At the center of the story is former President Jimmy Carter, whom Kopple interviews in the present day (he’s now 94), but who we also hear in a series of never-before-released White House telephone recordings where Carter receives updates on the mounting catastrophe. His silence at the other end of the line speaks volumes.

Eagle Claw, which was planned for several months down to the smallest detail, involved a platoon of special ops forces infiltrating Iranian territory via helicopter and transport aircraft, landing at a rally point known as Desert One, and then taking off in a squadron of six choppers to Tehran, where they were to land next to the embassy, blow a hole in the wall and rescue all 52 hostages held inside. Easy peasy, right?

As much as the mission was already a challenging one, things began to fall apart early on when two helicopters malfunctioned on the way over. They got worse when what was supposed to be a desolate landing zone was met by Iranian civilians passing on the road, whom the Delta Force team was obliged to attack or hold hostage. The operation was soon aborted, after which disaster struck: A dust storm hit the area, causing a helicopter to crash into a troop carrier and killing a handful soldiers. Equipment was left on the ground as the army quickly retreated, and the site is now a tourist attraction for Iranians celebrating this small but symbolic victory over the U.S.

Carter, who was in the army himself, had “a great antipathy to the use of military force,” according to his VP Walter Mondale, and feared causing casualties among the hostages and soldiers, or else inciting an all-out war. He was publicly chastised for his “weak-kneed non-policy” toward the crisis, but as Kopple reveals, he thought long and hard about the best course of action and was devastated by Eagle Claw’s failure. He then worked for many months afterward to negotiate the release of the hostages, only to have the rug pulled out from under him when they were delivered just after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, to whom the success was attributed. (Some speculate that Reagan's people made a deal with the Iranians to delay the hostages' release until after he was sworn in.)

Other interviewees include former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, news anchor Ted Koppel, who was ABC’s State Department correspondent at the time, a handful of veteran Delta Force operatives involved in the original mission, and an Iranian man who witnessed the events firsthand from a bus held captive on the ground.

Editing by Francisco Bello and Fabian Caballero keeps the pace tense, with animation by Zartosht Soltani (Where to Invade Next) re-creating the action in colorfully realistic ways. Wendy Blackstone’s omnipresent score is a bit much in places, lending a solemn air, and even a shred of hope, to an ordeal that continues to haunt those who lived through it.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: Cabin Creek Films
Director: Barbara Kopple
Producers: Barbara Kopple, David Cassidy, Eric Forman
Executive producers: Zachary G. Behr, Eli Lehrer
Directors of photography: Asad Faruqi, Gary Griffin, Gelareh Kiazand, Thomas Kaufman
Editors: Francisco Bello, Fabian Caballero
Composer: Wendy Blackstone

In English, Farsi
107 minutes