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In her latest movie, Barbara Kopple, an Academy Award-winning documentarian known for keenly observed vérité pictures of workers’ struggles (“Harlan County, U.S.A.,” American Dream”) and celebrity lives (“Shut Up & Sing”), takes a frustratingly conventional approach to some well-known piece of history.
They developed for the History Channel, “Desert One,” details the doomed 1980 Delta Force operation to rescue the 52 Americans held hostage from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Shortly after landing in the desert, the assignment struck technical snags and climate issues, culminating not only in failure but also tragedy: Eight servicemen died in an accidental crash. The incident, many think, price President Jimmy Carter a second term.
Kopple aims to get a 360-degree sweep of this story, interviewing service members included, the hostages, their Iranian captors, in addition to Carter and several high-profile members of the administration. Though comprehensive and frequently stirring, the balances lack new analytical or insight heft. Big-picture questions – what precisely went wrong in the lead-up into the assignment – and how it influenced the 1980 presidential election – are invoked vaguely.
Instead, the film emphasizes story detail, boasting exactly what the media substances call”unearthed archival sources” and”unprecedented access.” Other than some new on-the-ground perspectives from Iranians, the spade boils down to previously unreleased White House telephone recordings, mostly of Carter responding tersely to army briefings. Animations by the Iranian artist Zartosht Soltani exemplify the film’s most treasured section, a play-by-play of the operation. Still, there is not much here that hasn’t already been covered – with possibly more extraordinary vividness – in investigative articles.
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