(2020) War Documentary (Abramorama/Discovery) Itsei Nakagawa. Directed by Erik Nelson
Newscaster Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who lived through and fought in the Second World War, and the term fits. It was a generation that knew the meaning of sacrifice and the meaning of valor. Much of what this country achieved in the second half of the twentieth century was largely due to the spirit and tenacity of those war years, lifting our country out of a crippling economic depression to political, cultural and financial dominance from the 1950s onward.
This film, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VJ day (the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific Theater), was taken from over 700 reels of color footage that have been sitting in the National Archives, largely unseen. There is a reason for that – some of the footage is graphic, showing dead bodies, mangled bodies, irradiated bodies and a Japanese woman stepping off of a cliff in the Marianas Islands rather than letting the American troops take her alive. This isn’t for sensitive souls.
The footage has been digitally restored to 4K standards and looks almost contemporary. Also, Nelson – rather than fitting the film with stentorian narration like so many documentaries of the war – utilizes interviews with men who served in the Pacific. Now in their 90s, they are occasionally cantankerous and always compelling. They offer a viewpoint of modern society (which creeps in) that is unique but well-earned.
The footage concentrates on the last six months of the war, from the Battle of Manila freeing the Philippines (as MacArthur made good on his promise to return) through the Battle of Iwo Jima – I was struck watching marines arriving on the island in troop carriers and wondered how many of them didn’t make it home – the fierce fighting on Okinawa which convinced the military and political leaders of the United States that a protracted invasion of Japan would be ruinously costly in terms of American lives and resources, the firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That footage is largely narrated by Itsei Nakagawa, who was 15 years old at the time and attending school in the center of the city of Hiroshima, but miraculously escaped death and radiation poisoning; he is a naturalized American citizen now, retired and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His eyewitness testimony provides context unlike almost anything you’ve ever seen, except for maybe the incredible but little-seen documentary Message from Hiroshima. The debate on the morality of dropping those bombs continues to be discussed with no clear consensus.
The movie personalizes the war like no other documentary I’ve seen and in that sense is comparable to Peter Jackson’s amazing They Shall Not Grow Old. The spirit of both films is similar, although the testimony of the veterans in this film is tailored more to the images onscreen. Also, like Jackson’s film, this movie overstays its welcome a little bit and you may end up a little numb by the time the closing credits roll. That’s more a testament to our shorter attention spans today than anything else.
This is definitely worth the attention of any history buff. It is currently playing in limited virtual cinematic release (see below for a link to participating theaters) but for those who don’t mind waiting it will be broadcast on the Discovery Channel starting Labor Day weekend..
REASONS TO SEE: The color footage is amazing. The testimony of the various soldiers and sailors who fought give a personal feeling.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too long and too graphic for the sensitive sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The exact number of dead in the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be known; it is estimated that 126,000-229,000 were killed, but those numbers are considered to be conservative.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War 2 in Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: After So Many Days