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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review: Five Came Back (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Laurent Bouzereau

I'm not sure if Five Came Back qualifies as a proper film, since Netflix is selling it as a series and it's split into distinct episodes, but I figure if a 10 part ESPN series can win the Best Documentary Oscar, then surely definitions are fluid enough that this story about five of old Hollywood's great directors putting their careers on hold in order to document WWII qualifies as a film. Adapted from Mark Harris' book of the same name (which is very much worth the read, whether you're a film buff or not), Five Came Back is an often affecting look at how the experience of the war had a lasting impact on the directors - Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston - not just as men, but as filmmakers whose careers and work would be markedly changed. Running at just a little over 3 hours, Five Came Back isn't as comprehensive as a film as it is as a book, but it's nevertheless a moving and engrossing piece of work.

Five Came Back is split into three parts whose titles, "The Mission Begins," "Combat Zones," and "The Price of Victory," denote how distinctly the story has been sectioned into a beginning-middle-end structure. Of the three parts, the first is the weakest, giving the broadest of overviews of the scene in Hollywood during the period when the rest of the world was going to war but the US was firmly in an isolationist mindset. The story of Hollywood in the years before the US entered WWII is a really interesting one (I recommend Thomas Doherty's Hollywood and Hitler as a start on that story), but aside from noting that most studio moguls (with the exception of the Warner brothers) were reluctant to get involved, both because they didn't want to jeopardize their business interests in Germany and because they didn't think it was Hollywood's place to get political, Five Came Back doesn't dig very deep into the larger context in which Capra, Ford, Wyler, Stevens, and Huston decided to enter into the war effort, walking away from very successful careers to serve their country as documentarians and propagandists.

But if the first part is a bit weak, the two subsequent parts of the film are strong enough that they more than make up for it, as the directors get into the thick of things in the war and the discussion shifts to how their experiences in the war changed them as people and as artists. In discussing these great directors of yesteryear, Five Came Back enlists Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Torro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan, to varying degrees of success. Greengrass was the great surprise for me, a terrifically engaging and entertaining presence who is assigned (I use that word loosely, as while each of the contemporary directors is tasked with speaking at length about one of the old directors in particular, they ultimately offer opinion and insight about all of them) to Ford, while Coppola (assigned to Huston) was a little bit of disappointment in terms of what he contributes, not because he doesn't offer any interesting commentary, but because I expected just a bit more insight from someone who has been such a towering figure in the world of cinema. The all star of the talking heads is, no surprise, Spielberg (assigned to Wyler), who is so good at talking about the language of cinema that I feel like I could listen to him tackle the subject all day long.

As with any adaptation, there are things that the book does better than the film. For example, the book does a better job at parsing out the technical aspects regarding Ford and Stevens' filming of the D-Day invasion, and in terms of characterizing the men the book also does a better job at capturing Stevens' loneliness for his family while he was bouncing around various theaters of the war, Ford's blowhardiness, which he could somehow never quite manage to shake even as he did things worthy of praise, and Capra's frustration at being separated from his family and worrying over his financial stability while riding a desk in Washington and releasing films that were often just a step or two behind, their content considered yesterday's news. Additionally, while the film acknowledges the racism of the US propaganda films about Japan, and notes that the disparity in terms of how the cinematic war effort dealt with Germans compared to the Japanese as enemy combatants, it doesn't do as much as it could with this particular, and particularly vile, thread of the narrative.

But there are also ways in which the film is superior, namely for the fact that the film can incorporate clips from the films that Capra, Ford, Wyler, Stevens, and Huston made as part of the war effort, as well as from the films that they made before and after. Clips from the features that the men made are used to add poignancy to the discussion (and it works because film is a wonderful, manipulative medium), and footage from the documentaries that they made lend the film a sense of immediacy and raw emotion. It's one thing to read about what Stevens recorded when he and his crew accompanied troops on the liberation of Dachau, it's another thing entirely to actually see some of that footage. Parts of the film are quite harrowing and that's because of the sheer power of the images that were captured by the directors in the field, and the film and the directors providing talking heads draw some insights into how the experiences of the war filtered into the directors' post-war work by showing shots and clips from those films. It's some images - both the documentary and feature film images - that make the great impact and in the end Five Came Back is a thoughtful and moving exploration of a chapter of Hollywood's history that has been curiously under-acknowledged in film until now.

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