In her latest film, Barbara Kopple, an Academy Award-winning documentarian known for keenly observed vérité portraits of workers’ struggles (“Harlan County, U.S.A.,” “American Dream”) and celebrity lives (“Shut Up & Sing”), takes a frustratingly conventional approach to a well-known slice of history.
Produced for the History Channel, “Desert One” details the doomed 1980 Delta Force operation to rescue the 52 Americans held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Soon after landing in the desert, the mission hit technical snags and weather problems, culminating not only in failure but also tragedy: Eight servicemen died in an accidental crash. The incident, many believe, cost President Jimmy Carter a second term.
Kopple aims for a 360-degree sweep of the story, interviewing servicemen involved, the hostages, their Iranian captors, as well as Carter and several high-profile members of his administration. Though comprehensive and often stirring, the accounts lack new insight or analytical heft. Big-picture questions — what precisely went wrong in the lead-up to the mission, and how it influenced the 1980 presidential election — are invoked vaguely.
Instead, the film emphasizes narrative detail, boasting what the press materials call “unearthed archival sources” and “unprecedented access.” Other than some new on-the-ground perspectives from Iranians, the scoop boils down to previously unreleased White House telephone recordings, which consist mostly of Carter responding tersely to military briefings. Animations by the Iranian artist Zartosht Soltani illustrate the film’s most gripping section, a play-by-play of the operation, but there’s not much here that hasn’t already been covered — with perhaps greater vividness — in investigative articles.
Not rated. In English and Farsi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.