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From Desert One (2019), dir. Barbara Kopple (image courtesy The 2050 Group)

During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, US armed forces put together an elaborate plan to extract hostages from the US Embassy in Tehran. It was called Operation Eagle Claw, and entailed establishing a staging ground code-named “Desert One” in the middle of the desert. Things went quite poorly. The whole affair is laid out in the new doc Desert One, directed by two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple.

Kopple is best-known for her 1976 masterpiece Harlan County, USA, about a Kentucky coal miner strike. It’s one of the greatest depictions of union action and worker solidarity in film. In Desert One, she tries her hand at a real-life military thriller, which is decidedly outside of her usual wheelhouse. Its use of archival materials to reconstruct the events of Operation Eagle Claw is impressive, but it feels mostly detached from the proceedings. Kopple’s best films capture blistering humanity, and that’s mostly absent here. Still, if military history interests you, there are plenty of fun details to follow — by the time a third helicopter has to opt out of the mission, the story grows close to sheer farce.

Desert One is now available in virtual cinemas.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He lives and works in New York.

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