Desert One

In high school, I thought watching History Channel documentaries during class was one of the most underrated things we did. 

Many students used this time as an opportunity to either take a nap or play games on their phone, but I found each documentary to be particularly interesting — admittedly some more than others. 

“Desert One,” a documentary directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Barbara Kopple, which opened at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this past weekend, feels like it would actually hold students’ attention. 

Obviously, a theater provides a more well-rounded and satisfying movie experience than a classroom, but “Desert One” will satisfy one’s educational craving wherever they decide to watch it. 

The documentary centers around a failed mission to rescue the hostages held in the United States embassy in Iran during the country’s 1979 revolution. The mission was incredibly complicated and entirely top-secret, but the documentary utilizes new archival sources and interviews with a myriad of individuals involved to paint a clear picture of what the plan was, what went wrong and what happened in its aftermath.

“Desert One” manages to tell a complete and compelling story by depicting and analyzing every nook and cranny of the planned rescue.

Kopple managed to get interviews with pretty much anyone even remotely involved with the operation. Interviewees range from former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Walter Mondale to the soldiers deployed on the mission, several of the American hostages and multiple Iranians who witnessed the events. 

By interviewing so many different people, Kopple manages to provide pretty much every imaginable perspective on the operation. The audience is given the opportunity to hear the accounts of this story from every level. The film isn’t presented solely from an American perspective either. The Iranian students who stormed the embassy and held the hostages for over a year are interviewed as well. It allows them to present their perspectives and explain their motivations in the events, all of which are juxtaposed against the various American accounts of the situation. This paints the entire hostage crisis as a very complex situation, but by presenting so many viewpoints and following the situation linearly, the documentary is able to present all of this information in a manner that is easy to understand.

The film also explores the immense pressure Carter was under to resolve the situation. 

Carter and Mondale are among the most frequent interviewees presented in the film. The accounts they provide are surprisingly honest and personal. They aren’t acting as politicians trying to maintain a good image, but rather just two men recounting their mindsets and motivations throughout the entire ordeal. It makes the audience feel as if they were actually in the rooms and on the calls with Carter and Mondale. Additionally, much of this is painted against the background of Carter’s growing unpopularity and the upcoming election against Ronald Reagan. 

“Desert One” is a perfect example of a historical documentary that does all it can to paint an accurate picture of the events it's depicting.

It’s an incredibly in-depth, well-researched and masterfully presented documentary that is sure to suck viewers in and leave them having learned a lot. I wasn’t born until nearly two decades after the Iran hostage crisis, but after watching this film I feel legitimately educated on the topic.