THREE DOCS REVIEWED: “Desert One,” “Red Penguins” and “Unsettled”

With the multiplexes shuttered, and the so-called event films on hold for months yet, it’s a boomtime for documentaries, which continue their march onto streaming platforms. Here are a few choice non-fiction flicks to keep an eye out for.

“Desert One”

It’s been four decades since Iranian students overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, beginning a hostage situation that would only end 444 days later—and mere moments after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, as a parting shot by the ayatollah at the defeated Jimmy Carter.

That is well known, but the fascinating new documentary “Desert One,” from two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (“American Dream,” “Harlan County U.S.A.”), spins a yarn about a U.S. special forces operation into the Iranian desert in an attempt to free the American hostages by force. The rescue effort ended in tragedy.

Soldiers, Foreign Service officers and politicians, including Carter himself, speak about the weeks leading up to the incursion, with military brass briefing the president on the chances for success, and Carter seemingly waffling and inept amid the crisis (though reviled by the electorate in 1980, Carter’s post-presidency is the stuff of legend). Since most of what is related by the talking heads who were there was never filmed, Kopple utilizes animation to show us the particulars of the military operation that, almost comically, came upon a busload of Iranians in the desert—which was only the beginning of problems that would scuttle not just the mission but result in many of the soldiers losing their lives.

Fascinating and inspiring, it’s a little-discussed chapter of a lengthy crisis situation that, forty-one years later, continues to hamper any chance at a reconciliation between the United States and the Islamic republic. But, in the end, as one former soldier, breaking down in tears before the camera, says in the film’s most poignant moments, at least, they tried (to be released on August 21st).

“Red Penguins”

Gabe Polsky returns to the scene of Russian ice hockey and its symbiotic relationship with the NHL. His “Red Army,” from 2014, was about Viacheslav Fetisov, who played on the losing side of the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Polsky widens the canvas now with “Red Penguins,” which covers the story of how the Pittsburgh Penguins, in one of Perestroika’s most unlikely chapters, formed a corporate partnership with the Red Army’s hockey team as the Soviet Union fell at long last. Gone was the evil empire, yes, but into its void came gangsters, hucksters and a Russian autocrat who continues to rule from Moscow even now.

But a marketing guru named Steven Warshaw wasn’t about to let the newly-capitalistic Russia get by without bringing Russian players to the United States, where their brusque manner and prodigious drinking ran headlong into the “gentlemen’s” sport of hockey. Add to this crooks, dubious moneymen and mysterious assassinations, and you have a story that must be seen to be believed (comes out August 4th).


Director Tom Shepard’s camera follows around some of the most unlikely victims of the immigration crackdown by the current administration. From around the world, LGBTQ refugees have come to the United States from countries where their orientation puts them at risk of not just ostracization or bodily harm but the very real possibility of state-sanctioned murder. Many of Shepard’s subjects come to the San Francisco Bay Area, where finding a place to live is neither easy nor cheap, forcing many of them to move constantly from room to room as their legal status hangs in the balance.

Among his subjects is Subhi, a gay man from Syria who has escaped Islamic extremism but isn’t yet sure if the Land of Opportunity will welcome him as easily as he’s hoped. Then there are Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola trying to navigate the labyrinthine American legal system to achieve residency. (A note to those who think immigration to this country is easy: It’s not.)

“Unsettled” puts the focus on an underrepresented segment of the immigration debate, who flee persecution to the Promised Land at a time when it is run by an immigrant-despising regime, but where else can they go?

Available for streaming

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple