Celebrated Documentarian Lands the Definitive Telling of the Iran Hostage Crisis



Having been born in 1973, the term “Iran hostage crisis” is one of the first that I recall being bandied around a lot. Mostly, it was by people on television news, which had a way of always being on in our home in that simpler time, on the unknowing cusp of the birth of 24-hour news.  Although I had no notion of what those words- that phrase- meant, it nevertheless came just as my understanding of a much larger outside world was solidifying.  The dire tones and grainy footage were all that a spongelike six-year-old needed to discern that this was, somehow, ongoing bad news

At that same moment, 1979/1980, the United States was in the throes of a presidential election.  Incumbent Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who was already struggling to appear tough, was in the process of losing to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.  As we now understand it, Carter was in a precarious position in terms of the hostage crisis, a situation that many deemed his administration responsible for. 

The broader truth is that the triggering incident- the disposal of the dictatorial Shah of Iran (a controversial American ally going back several generations) and the United States’ unwillingness to allow him to subsequently stand trial in his homeland that hates him so- was an epic eggshell walk for Carter.  Iran, under the new hardline leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was so fueled by anti-American sentiment that the U.S. embassy was forcibly overtaken, and, for 444 excruciating days, fifty-two American citizens were held hostage.  Their safety was in no way assured.

In the new evergreen documentary Desert One (named after a ubiquitous but now-forgotten U.S. military outpost just outside of the lower border or Iran) filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan Country U.S.A.) encapsulates the difficult and harrowing moment in history.  From the diplomats to the politicians and leaders, to the operatives to the family members of the operatives, to the hostage takers and the journalists assigned to covering it all, they all have their say.  From Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Ted Koppel to key players in the fatally botched rescue attempt, we experience the tension and tragedy of it all.

Barbara Kopple, after a long and fairly diverse career, has racked up the respect and clout to make this possible.  Desert One is a solid and thorough work, expressing both sides of the situation, with a greater sympathetic weight bestowed across the board upon the American side.  Those looking for a truly balanced telling of the Iran hostage crisis will be left wanting, but Kopple, through precise editing and compelling use of limited animation of dynamic sketches, clearly tells the version of this that she herself has obviously landed upon.  The film, whether by design or by fate, avoids topicality, making it all the more definitive as a work of reference going forward.  

In the vast sea of information on this subject that’s already out there, the filmmaker has the tremendous fortune of presenting some eye-opening never-before-heard White House recordings of calls between the President or Vice President and various mission higher ups.  As the disastrous aspects of the failure ramp up, their heartbreak is audible.  In this fresh take on this much-told tale, this element is not only new, it is essential.  

As released to DVD through Kino Lorber, Desert One is the kind of unfortunate no-frills standard definition presentation that has been typical of all of Greenwich’s films as of late.  There are no bonus features or audio commentary to speak of, though a film such as this begs for both. Thankfully, as far as such limitations go, Desert One does looks and sound perfectly spic and span.

In any case, it is indeed clear that Kopple has combed a desert of information in a noble effort to bring the stories together as one.