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Review: 'Desert One'

If you’re a student of history or are old enough to remember the decades of the '70s and '80s, you probably know about Operation Entebbe also known as the Raid on Entebbe.

It was a daring and successful counter-terrorist hostage rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israel Defense Forces at the Entebbe Airport on July 4th, 1976.

The mission was a success. One-hundred-two of 106 hostages were rescued.

The world applauded the bravery and resolve to do what needed to be done.

Now turn the clock ahead to April 11, 1980 when President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s elite Delta Force to rescue 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran.

Negotiations for the release of the hostages had failed. The mission seemed justified.

And it seemed accomplishable.

The United States was, after all, the greatest military power on the planet with the latest and best equipment and the most highly trained personnel.

There were risks involves, but a good chance of success.

But things went terribly wrong.

Embarrassingly wrong. This mission failed.

The hostages were not rescued.

Aircraft crashed into each other and burned, taking the lives of eight of the specially-trained servicemen.

Their charred, unrecognizable bodies were jubilantly dragged out for public display for a cheering, chanting anti-American mob and shown on Iranian television for all the world to see.

It was a low point for Carter’s presidency and for a nation reeling from the sting of military failure and global humiliation.

Ronald Reagan crushed Carter’s re-election campaign that fall.

And the stunned nation seemed intent on quietly sweeping the incident under the carpet of history and moving on.

In the end, it became a disgraceful, demoralizing mess that was best left to hopefully be forgotten.

But now comes the hard-edged documentary Desert One, re-examining the ill-fated mission with the clarity of historical hindsight.

It is a compelling, detailed analysis of what happened, told by the people who were there.

It attempts to look squarely at the facts. It endeavors to reconstruct the chaotic events that lead to the aborted mission in the desert that fateful night.

It is a remarkable story, detailing all the major players from the President and Vice President of the United States to the Pentagon Officials who planned the mission to the elite forces and their crew who experienced it all, on the ground, first-hand.

Wives and children of the fallen servicemen are interviewed.

It’s a well-written, tightly-edited narrative that is as dramatic as any fictional military spy novel.

It’s thoroughly fascinating. And tensely dramatic.

Worth mentioning, it is the work of Barbara Kopple, producer and director of the Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A. (1976).

There are no video clips of the actual Desert One mission. This was 1980.

There was no satellite live video coverage. Only satellite audio communication between the military officials and the White House.

Desert One provides never-before-heard communication, informing the President of every step of the operation as it tragically, woefully spun out of control.

It’s an example of how even the best laid plans of brilliant minds can go horribly wrong when unforeseen events work their way into the formula.

Without giving away too much, what seemed like a perfect night with good visibility turned into a nightmare when a sandstorm made it nearly impossible for the eight military helicopters to navigate to their landing zone.

Helicopter engines were damaged in the process.

The landing zone, a flat stretch of desert that looked ideal for the helicopters and the two large transport planes, suddenly proved otherwise.

It was near a stretch of road thought to have no local nighttime traffic according to surveillance.

That turned out not to be the case. What resulted became part of a chain of unforeseen occurrences.

It makes for a story is as heart pounding as any work of fiction.

As mentioned, there is no footage of the operation.

What Desert One provides instead are animated sequences in the style of a graphic novel.

It may sound like a cheesy copout filmic device, but it works.

It supports eyewitness narration of what was actually happening, moment by moment.

And it effectively lays out and visualizes the unraveling of military planning gone wrong, despite the best efforts of the best military strategists.

Desert One is first-rate documentary filmmaking.

Imaginative, well-researched and exceptionally well produced. And it delivers edge-of-your-seat suspense.

For those of us who can remember this chapter of history, Desert One is an in-depth investigation of one of the most important events capping the decade of the Seventies.

The world watched as this story evolved.

In the end, it lasted 444 days.

It spawned the ABC news show "Nightline" (which was dedicated to presenting nightly half-hour coverage of the day’s hostage updates) and made Ted Koppel a household name.

It was big. It dominated the news.

It was on everyone’s mind. And when it was over, it was something everyone seemed to want to forget, though it never really went away.

Now, finally, we can take one last look back four decades later and try to better understand it.


Desert One opens in virtual cinema and in select theaters August 21. A virtual screening can be seen in the Pittsburgh area through The Tull Family Theater.

Digital on demand release will follow on September 4. (Apple TV+, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft Playstation, Fandango Now, cable providers including Verizon, Comcast, Cox)

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