War! What’s it good for? How about some Academy Awards? It didn’t take long for man to begin filming his conflicts, and from there it was a quick progression to these documentaries being recognized by the Academy for their achievements in filmmaking. If you’ve got a Netflix account, you can vicariously go to war with some of the most astounding footage ever captured on film.
John Ford shot the majority of this footage personally, chronicling one of the most famous naval battles of all time. Produced by the United States Navy, modern viewers should be cautious about dismissing this as a propaganda piece. Yes, the voice over narration is vapid and it was clearly intended to make the audience back home feel pride and reassurance about the war effort. Ford’s stunning photography, though, speaks for itself. Even though nothing particularly gruesome is ever shown to us, the scale of destruction is clear and we can piece together for ourselves the enormity of what we’re seeing. It’s a short film, running a scant 18 minutes, but they’re a captivating 18 minutes.
Won: 1942 Special Award – Documentary
French veteran Pierre Schoendoerffer was so affected by his tour of duty in Indochina that he returned with recording equipment to chronicle the efforts of the American forces that succeeded the French there. You’ll follow the platoon on patrol to a Vietnamese village, trying to root out Viet Cong agents; see soldiers seeking r and r in Saigon; even live through an ambush in the jungle. The cinematography is somewhat primitive, but what’s being shown is genuinely captivating and frank. Unlike John Ford, Schoendoerffer’s intent wasn’t to mollify the audience at home, but rather to show the ordeals of the men in uniform as they really were. If I had one complaint, it’s that the film sort of meanders from one event to the next without really establishing a context for what’s taking place.
Note that the version available from Netflix was re-edited in 1987, recut and with altered narration. I’m told that this is inferior to the original release version, which runs an additional nine minutes in length and features more thoughtful commentary. Enthusiastic viewers should make an effort to find the original cut.
Won: 1967 Best Documentary (Feature)
Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, circa 2007: the deadliest theater of combat in the entire campaign. Enter a new platoon, on a 15 month deployment. Fed up with the lack of progress made by American forces—and mounting casualties — a new, pro-active doctrine is adopted. Tim Hetherington and Sebastien Junger embedded themselves with the Second Platoon for the duration of their 15 month deployment and the footage they captured is astounding. You’ll see firsthand the frustration of the soldiers as they try to reach out to local village elders and cultivate a cooperative relationship. Everything from anxiety to anger, from fear to boredom, is on display. Commentary from the soldiers themselves offers insight into their unique experiences. Their honesty may be surprising; several look directly into the camera and confess doubts and fears. It’s hard to imagine the audience that isn’t moved when one of these men becomes choked up and cannot articulate his thoughts or feelings. You may despise armed combat, but the objective of Restrepo is merely to give you an idea what these men have endured in an effort to make a difference in a war that has become largely ignored in recent years. Hetherington and Junger — whose cinematography is at times breath-taking — accomplish their goal handily.
Nominated: 2010 Best Documentary (Feature)