Wednesday, November 14, 2007


They were called short-subjects when I was a kid!
by Charlie Leck

"War is mainly a catalogue of blunders." [Winston Churchill]

The magnificent documentaries that are rolling out these days are getting more attention from me than the traditional movies. We are in a period that has produced some truly fabulous documentary film makers. From Charles Berling's extraordinary March of the Penguins to the complete list of the documentaries of Ken Burns, this is really a great film making era.

Ken Burns has produced a dozen really good documentaries. Among that number are several that rate rave reviews; and none more so than his latest fantastic production, The War. The New Yorker Magazine gave it a less than 5-star review. I think they're just dead wrong. They say it's tedious. Dam right it's tedious! For those young men and women who fought in it, the whole freakin' war was tedious. Burns lets you taste the war as if you were there among the guys at the front or at home with the people spread across the nation, worrying about conquest by Germany and Japan and worrying about their sons in harm's way. The New York Times complains that it was looked at from too small a perspective – that of only one nation of the dozens that were deeply involved in this global fight. However, that was the point for Burns. He wanted people to see the war the way Americans saw it – Americans at home and Americans on the front. Our resources were stretched to the breaking point, spread completely over the Pacific Ocean and over most of the Atlantic. Our fighters were on little Pacific islands and across vast parts of Africa and Europe. No nation had the global involvement that we did.

If there's a thesis behind the film, it is that war is a vast catalogue of incredible disasters and tragic mistakes by its commanders. You've been to the glorious landing place at Normandy and you've seen plenty of the naval battle at Midway. Burns takes you to other places and allows you to understand that thousands and thousands of our soldiers and sailors died in locations that were as difficult and horrendous as the more prominent and famous settings.

This is 15 hours of war! That's too much for any one sitting, of course. Taken in bites, it is both a compelling story and a valuable history lesson. I'll agree that this documentary does not rank with the other triumphs of Ken Burns: The Civil War; Baseball; and Jazz. It's only a half-star back, however, and it is great viewing for history buffs, especially those devoted to American History. If you don't know the works of Ken Burns, you're missing something very special.

The most extraordinary documentary of the year has to be No End in Sight. I've referred you before to the New York Times review of this block-buster. The review prepares us for a film that will not be easy to watch. "It's a sober, revelatory and absolutely vital film." If you've not seen the work, you are in the company of the current occupant of the White House and his Vice President, his former Secretary of Defense and his Secretary of State. Too bad! They are the ones who should see it and understand it. Go to the official web site of the documentary and peek at a few of the trailers. It will draw you to the movie itself, which is now out on DVD.

The other big time documentary this year came from the biggest name in this genre of film making, Michael Moore. His offering in 2007 is everything you could ask for in a documentary. Sicko has the medical community sitting up and taking notice. Its arguments are irrefutable in nearly each case. A number of significant leaders in the "medical industry" are now calling a National Health Care System inevitable. Read the Mayo Clinic recommendation on a system of health insurance that would leave no one out. The conversation motivated by Sicko will go on now for some time. If the manner in which America delivers health care and the manner in which people can afford it improves, it will be the most triumphal documentary of all times. The DVD is now on public sale.

Here's my bet (and at pretty good odds): President Bush has seen none of the documentaries mentioned above. We know he doesn't like to read, but couldn't he just sit in front of a movie screen for a little while.

When I was a kid these kinds of films were called "Short Subjects" and I pretty much thought they were borrrrr-ing! They only delayed the Gene Autry movie for which I had really come. The art of the documentary has certainly changed from those days.


  1. Great post Chas! I'm a huge fan of documentaries.

    Michael Moore has done a lot in the realm of documentaries. He's also a supporter of the film industry. He started a film festival in my town, where he lives not too far from, which has been a huge success.

    I also have 2 friends, The Hennegan Brothers, who are working to promote their documentary, The First Saturday In May. It's already won many awards at film festivals across the country.

    Let's hear it for documentaries!

  2. I agree the documentaries are better than the stuff Holywood is producing and The War is important because those men who fought and came back to provide the freedom we have today are slowly dissapearing and with them the ugly reality that is war will be lost. Very few politicians who start these things have ever been on the front line and It is important we preserve those memories by real people for future generations out of respect and because they are an important part of who we are