I used to write short reviews of films under a single post in a segment called Reel Life. I gave it up when I began writing full reviews instead. With this article, you could say I’m bringing it back, but with a different purpose. On occasion, I’ll see something that, for whatever reason, I don’t want to review using my usual metrics. In this case, I’ll be talking briefly about two different documentaries I’ve seen recently: one about the Apollo 11 mission and the other about the First World War. All I’ll say now is that both are worth watching, so if you wish to go into them blind, go ahead and see them first.
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019)
The release of Apollo 11 was quite timely, not only having premiered nearly fifty years after the mission in question was carried out, but also in the wake of Damien Chazelle’s First Man. It serves as an excellent companion piece to Mr. Chazelle’s dramatization, going into the technical details as to how the mission was conducted. It’s easy to imagine that NASA merely fired the shuttle in the general direction of the moon so they could land there when in reality, the spacecraft had to sling itself in that direction using Earth’s gravity to gain momentum – just like in The Martian.
The manner in which the film is arranged also reminds me of Woodstock with its narrative-free nature and several split-screen segments showcasing two events simultaneously. Given the time period in which this footage was shot, it’s highly fitting. All in all, it was great getting to see this never-before-seen footage, and if you’re even slightly interested in history, you owe it to yourself to check this documentary out.
They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)
The events of the First World War tend to get glossed over in favor of those of the second. While the latter was definitely more significant in terms of scope, many stories from the former get lost to the ether as a result. Having made the superb The Lord of the Rings film adaptations in the 2000s, Peter Jackson had a bit of trouble following an act of that magnitude. Fortunately, he managed to pull through in this loving tribute to his grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson – one of the many New Zealanders who fought alongside the British.
Mr. Jackson’s documentary is an incredible technical achievement, using archive footage shot during the actual conflict, and restoring it digitally while also adding voice acting and sound effects. The result is an incredible sight to behold. I thought for sure that Mr. Jackson and his team shot original footage to supplement the archived reels. Though one could argue this makes the experience inauthentic, I personally though it was a great touch. As Mr. Jackson himself stated in an interview, “[The men] saw a war in color; they certainly didn’t see it in black and white.” Although even the most painstakingly accurate depiction of war could never truly tell its audience what the experience is like, They Shall Not Grow Old doesn’t pull any punches. Soldiers can die at any moment and the conflict’s signature trench warfare led to the horrifying trench foot and poison gas.
What I admire most about this documentary is that it touches upon a lot of strange circumstances surrounding the war. One soldier talks about playing a rugby game against a German team only to learn that war between their countries had been declared – and the battles were to be fought tomorrow. They just carried on with their game, knowing the next day they would likely be shooting at each other.
Their perception of the war drastically changes the longer they fight. At first, they were excited, likening it to a camping trip, but with just a tiny hint of danger to make things interesting. By the end, it has clearly taken their toll on them. This was likely due to the fact that they weren’t expecting the conflict to last as long as it did – some were even afraid it would end before they got to see any action. As they fight, they come to realize the German soldiers on the other side of the trenches really aren’t any different from themselves. Many were perfectly fine with having been captured, even volunteering to carry stretchers without anyone commanding them to do so. Amusingly, even if they had been fighting against each other this entire time they could agree on one thing: Prussians are the worst. They Shall Not Grow Old captures a human element few documentaries have and is worth the price of admission for anyone who is interested in studying the First World War – and even those who aren’t.