Five Came Back is a humanist piece about capturing the 20th century’s most inhumane conflict. If purity of intent were the only marker by which we judged cinema, it would push all my buttons and then some, though it’s also a fascinating disconnect in terms of documentarian form. More informative than emotional at the outset, the first two of its three hour-long installments are an info dump on par with a studio email hack, challenging even the most laser-focused viewers to keep up by making familiarity with its subjects feel almost prerequisite. Its third part however, is a hard-hitting payoff. A small price to pay in today’s “it gets good eventually” culture of recommendation.
It gets good just in time.
War is inexorably linked to the history of American cinema, a notion that’s as depressing as it is utterly fascinating. War alters social and political consciousness, exists in a symbiotic state with the American film industry, and helps divide Hollywood into distinct eras of style and content. World War II was one such cinematic landmark for five great American filmmakers: George Stevens, John Huston, Jon Ford, Frank Capra and William Wyler, whose pre and post-war efforts belie a stark difference in theme and outlook owing to their incredible nexus: up close & personal war documentaries, captured right in the thick of it.
The series’ overall structure is sensible. Part I explores each director’s cinematic beginnings prior to the war, with Part II chronicling their actual involvement. Part III details D-day, the A-bombs and the end of the conflict, delving into some dark territory before reaching the light at the end of the tunnel that is human depravity. In that sense, Five Came Back positions itself as its own war epic, helped along by the on-screen testimonials of modern masters like Paul Greengrass (United 93), Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), as well as the voice of newcomer Meryl Streep. This chronological super-structure helps keep the broader timeline in focus, but where the series seems to falter is in the individual structure of each episode.
It’s almost cruelly ironic that five masters of narrative speaking on five more should be a part of a documentary that struggles to move from one place to the next. Its first part is nearly incomprehensible in this regard, carelessly meandering from point to point, place to place and event to event with little connective tissue, as if it were assembled at random. It lacks focus, unable to decide whether it’s about war, about cinema, about their mutual influence, or even about the influence these great filmmakers had on each speaker, barring an off-hand mention of how Ford’s The Battle of Midway influenced Greengrass and his penchant for cinéma-vérité.
While its focus on Capra’s Why We Fight as propaganda-reversal forms the basis for the second and third chapters’ narrative P.O.V, Part I provides interesting tidbits but fails to be about anything in particular, playing hop-scotch with its subjects in a way that fogs up the narrative for anyone lacking familiarity with the eponymous five. That combined with its formal conventionality makes for a somewhat dissonant viewing experience when the film is talking about the filmmakers’ use of form, not to mention the effort they made to go above and beyond in order to capture or manipulate reality. In contrast to the work it features, Five Came Back often finds itself falling into a predictable, un-challenging rhythm, where repeated sequences of talking head, moving picture, animated graphic and slow zoom into still photograph feels almost robotic.
This is especially strange for a film so wonderfully packaged, as most Netflix shows tend to be. From its booming, Thomas Newman-scored open titles, with 3D renderings that move seamlessly between images of real war and fiction and strategic planning, to Meryl Streep’s uncharacteristically effective clinical espousal of this dark period of history, to blood-red title cards that remind us what year we’re in (and thus, what stage of the war), perhaps the only surefire clarity the film has to offer all the way through.
Still, where Part I acts as a haphazard opening, Part II circumvents the issue of switching between homogenous introductions by zeroing in on specifics, unafraid to hold America accountable for its own atrocities during this period. From the treatment of black soldiers, to Japanese internment, to America’s own propaganda (which both the film and its subjects readily label as such whilst discussing what facts were skewed), the stories of Stevens, Ford, Huston, Capra and Wyler go beyond their technical and logistical struggles and unearth their wartime efforts to not only inspire enlistment but make America introspect, while also holding a mirror up to any damage their films might have done.
This second part feels more structured (that is to say, it has structure to begin with), moving back and forth between the filmmakers’ efforts on the front lines as they moved further from American shores, as well as the interference of the Government and the studios, as if this battle of artistry was part of the war itself. Wyler, being the one Jewish filmmaker among them, and Capra the only other immigrant, often feel like the most enticing subjects because of their personal stake in the politics of America and its enemies, though there’s no denying the contributions of the likes of Stevens, whose footage of the horrors at Dachau was used as evidence at Nuremberg, Huston, whose Let There Be Light was a vital encapsulation of PTSD (though it wasn’t allowed to be screened until the ‘80s), and Ford, whose post-war cinema of myth and loss redefined America’s artistic landscape.
While Part II makes each individual’s contributions clearer, Part III slows down and acts as a quietly harrowing retrospective on human cruelty; not just the discovery of the goings on at the encampments, but America’s own inhumane actions against the Japanese, both at home and in Japan. The film eventually circles back to its initial focal point (the directors and their unique approaches), but it does so after having journeyed with them through the heart of darkness, eventually finding its central theme in how war changes people and cultures. It takes an awfully long time to get there, but it eventually punctuates this exploration by folding footage of war and Hollwood together, as if permanently linking the way in which we view their histories.
Despite all the darkness it treads, the film finds inspiration in the nature of the story it tells; the story of all stories. The search for good, through art and through people, as a means to capture, cope with and combat an increasingly ugly reality. For all its messy meandering, Five Came Back is ultimately timely. A meaningful history lesson worth watching.
All three episodes hit Netflix on March 31st.