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The directors grapple with bombings and bureaucracy in a gripping Five Came Back

“If you speak it loud enough and often enough, they believe you.”

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Five Came Back

"Combat Zones"

Season 1 , Episode 2

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The next time someone tells you documentaries are dull, there’s another title you can add to the long, long list of films that will prove them wrong. (Yes, it’s the one that’s the subject of this review.)

In “The Mission Begins,” the solid, if occasionally slow, first outing for Netflix’s Five Came Back, groundwork was being laid. That’s true of the events covered, as well as for the series—John Ford built the Field Photo Unit in advance of American involvement in the war, Frank Capra went to Washington to figure out how, exactly, to use film to motivate U.S. troops, William Wyler fought to include a villainous German in Mrs. Miniver, and so on. It’s perfectly understandable that with a roster of historical and contemporary filmmakers as stacked as this one, director Laurent Bouzereau and writer Mark Harris would need to take some time to establish who’s who, where they are, what they’re doing, and what’s at stake for them. The pieces must be set and the players called forward before the action can really begin.

Well, “Combat Zones” delivers on the promise of “The Mission Begins,” and then some. Now that the basics are established, Bouzereau and Harris find room to tackle some of the complex questions and messy historical realities brushed over in the first installment. Here are the questions about what, exactly, constitutes a documentary in these circumstances, the questions about responsibility to follow orders or to tell the truth, the staggeringly racist caricatures of Japanese people, the realities of a segregated armed forces, and the risk a filmmaker takes when boarding a bomber to fly over Germany, particularly when that filmmaker is Jewish.

The filmmaker in question sits at the center of many of the bigger ethical and moral questions raised in “Combat Zones,” and while each of the five directors (and their counterparts) prove compelling, it’s William Wyler whose story proves most absorbing. That’s due in no small part to the included footage from The Memphis Belle, Wyler’s 40-minute film that covers the 25th (and final) bombing run of an American crew. It’s incredible stuff (and I recommend watching the thing in its entirely—see the stray observations section for details), but beyond giving audience a chance to see pieces of the film, Harris and company use it to draw a picture of Wyler’s character. Knowing the risks, risks made greater because of who he is, Wyler fought to get in that “tuna can,” as Spielberg calls it, so that he could show the country what these boys were facing. He refused to fake it. Only the truth would do.

It’s not the only time Wyler takes a stand in “Combat Zones”—he refuses to work with the racist guidelines the military provides for The Negro Soldier—but the thematic resonance of The Memphis Belle isn’t limited to Wyler’s personal story. It also stands as a counterpoint to Tunisian Victory and The Battle of San Pietro, for which the directors (Capra and Huston, among others) staged battle scenes they weren’t able to shoot. Of the sticky ethical issues addressed in this episode, it‘s the issue of staging that‘s the least cut and dry, and thus most interesting. Listening to Spielberg and Coppola talk about San Pietro is particularly compelling. As Spielberg discusses a particular shot he was disappointed but impressed to learn was staged, we see it happen; when Coppola moves from talking about the grim realities of war to his own Apocalypse Now, we move with him, seeing a line drawn from San Pietro to the director’s own great war film.

What’s discussed is much more compelling than simply decrying a staged “documentary” or dismissing concerns out of hand. Harris, Bouzereau, and editor Will Znidaric make the complexity and importance of these questions clear by simply letting the films and filmmakers speak. It’s rich, nuanced stuff, and it’s a credit to Five Came Back that there’s no attempt to answer the questions. It’s quite enough show us how much was at stake and how murky were the waters in which they stood.

Much of that murkiness comes from the subject of propaganda itself. Early in “Combat Zones,” Del Toro lays out the early approaches of each of the film’s subjects to the task at hand: Ford saw his task as painting a mythical and epic picture; Huston saw adventure ahead; Wyler and Stevens were humanists, brokenhearted by the war and determined to tell the truth; Capra saw a problem to be solved. The problem was to answer his own simple question. If Why We Fight was the question, his means to answering it was propaganda.

That leads us to one of the episode’s most upsetting, and sadly, most timely segments. When Lowell Mellett is introduced, one might expect him to be a bureaucratic stick-in-the-mud, there to keep these great filmmakers from making great films. There’s some of that—though again, it’s wartime, and if Five Came Back makes one thing clear, it’s that they were all in uncharted waters when it came to the role of film in the conflict. It also makes clear that these are people of complexity, and it’s Merritt, speaking for the military, who steps in and tries to pull back on the unbelievable racism present in many of these films when it came to the Japanese people.

In a time when our own government is targeting many of our citizens by stoking fear and rage, in the year of the not-a-Muslim-ban-ban, it’s upsetting, but good and necessary, for us to get another reminder of where we’ve been in the past. Watching footage of Japanese Americans being shipped off to internment camps as we hear Merritt’s concerns—that if we paint the Japanese people as monsters, our own citizens won’t find homes anywhere in the country—is sobering, to say the least, and makes for a foreboding note in an already grim hour.

If that wasn’t enough, the episode’s final moments tell us exactly where we’re headed next. Normandy’s on the horizon, and Five Came Back isn‘t likely to pull its punches.

Stray observations

  • Should have mentioned this the first time, but better late than never: you can find many of the wartime films mentioned in the series on Netflix, conveniently grouped in this collection. It goes without saying that they’re worth watching. That includes The Battle of San Pietro, The Negro Soldier, The Memphis Belle, and The Battle of Midway.
  • Another thing I didn’t call out last time around: the beauty of the opening titles. They remind me a lot of Hulu’s 11.22.63 (which I also covered for TV Club).
  • In case you need another marker of my enthusiasm for this series, I picked up the book between reviews yesterday. Unsurprisingly great so far.
  • Not a ton of humor here, but listening to Paul Greengrass talk about John Ford being a bastard is wonderful fun. “That’s all, to use his phrase, a crock of shit.”
  • Other documentaries to prove that documentaries aren’t boring: O.J.: Made in America, Born Into Brothels, Paris is Burning, the totally weird Tickled, Man on Wire, Grey Gardens, Hoop Dreams, The King of Kong, The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, and countless others.