We both finished watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest 10 part documentary Vietnam on PBS this week and it was powerful and extremely important. It told us things we did not know about that war, it sparked thoughtful conversation, and most of all gave some context to why we are where we are today in this country. Great documentary filmmaking is hard to do and to make important ones is even harder. Here we look at six influential and groundbreaking documentaries.
I am a huge fan of documentaries, one of the first I ever saw was in school, it was the 1922 classic Nanook of the North. Historical documentaries have always been my sweet spot but if it’s well-made the topic doesn’t matter. Ken Burns, Errol Morris, and Michael Moore never let me down and there are plenty of lesser-known filmmakers too who have done excellent work. Some of my other favorites are Super Size Me, One Day in September, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and the best concert documentary ever filmed, Woodstock.
The Civil War (1990)
Ken Burns made history when he released this nine-part documentary on PBS in 1990. There had never been anything like this in the documentary theater before. Burns was able to make people who did not care about history pay attention to a war that happened over 100 years ago. I found it amazing. This was a major project and without living participants or film footage, Burns had to shape the narrative with still photography and the words of the dead, played by famous actors. He didn’t just tell Lincoln’s story but the people who experienced it, soldiers from both sides, the people on the home front, the leaders, and the slaves. Most documentaries at this time had the narrator tell you what happened, but by using a lot of first-hand accounts you get the emotional impact and it makes history come alive not just names and places. He even used authentic Civil War era music. He illustrated the brutality of this war and what it did to the country more than any other movie or TV show had done before. Although it was nine episodes critics still believed more could have been covered. How can it be too long and yet not long enough? It made people who knew little of the Civil War go running to libraries and bookstores trying to learn more, as did I.
Bonus: I hear that this was restored (in HD) a few years back and now having watched Vietnam would love to go back and rewatch it. Also not to be missed is The War which chronicles WWII.
MG: Considering I briefly interned in Burns’ editing room in Walpole, NH, I’m embarrassed to say I have only seen parts of this series, something I will rectify. In the editing room, I worked on a book of “tiny trims”, which were sometimes just 2 or 3 frames of edited film that they kept in case they wanted to extend a cut by 1/8 of a second. It speaks to the technical perfection that Burns and his team bring to their work, and one of the reasons he is a master documentarian.
The Men Who Killed Kennedy (1988 to 2003)
So I picked two documentaries that should be groundbreaking for just about everyone, then I picked this one, The Men Who Killed Kenndy, which is my guilty pleasure. This documentary will not show up on anyone’s best of list, but it was important to me and is clearly the best JFK Assassination documentary to date. Having read some books and being a little obsessed with the Kennedy Assassination I was always looking for more, and before Oliver Stone’s JFK, I had this British documentary queued up on my VCR. It started in 1988 with two episodes and then four more in 1991 and 1993 before finishing up with its final three in 2003. This film is done so well that at points it’s downright terrifying and as a teen, it freaked me the hell out. It’s well researched and presents many of the famous theories including outing three potential killers. It covers a lot of the same territory that JFK does including some of the more “out there” theories. The final 2003 parts were added were very controversial and even implicated Lyndon Johnson in the assassination. Do I buy everything? No, not really, they go over all the far-fetched stuff (Umbrella man, Black Dog Man, etc…) too and it’s often a scattershot approach to information but there is definitely some believable evidence that even the biggest skeptics can buy into.
Bonus: Oliver Stone’s JFK coming out just 2 years later put a lot of the information highlighted in this documentary and other sources in a more palatable platform for the non-JFK conspiracy masses and it earned a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.
MG: Back when I jumped on the assassination bandwagon, you should have told me about this one and I would have checked it out. Like the Stone movie, sometimes documentaries throw so much info out there, people write it all off as crazy conspiracy theories. Documentaries in general are often cast as “liberal” or “left-leaning”, which is a shame. Yes, every filmmaker has a viewpoint, but people sometimes people can’t handle the truth and thus throw a political label on it.
Incident at Oglala (1992)
The plight of the Native American community has always been something interesting to me, having read Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I started to search out more. A friend had urged me to read the non-fiction book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, which detailed the 1975 account of the shootout at Pine Ridge and the FBI’s tumultuous relationship with the American Indian Movement. Soon after the same friend introduced me to the 1992 Michael Apted directed documentary Incident at Oglala. Produced and narrated by Robert Redford it covers the same ground as Matthiessen’s book, including the arrest, trial, and conviction of Native American Leonard Peltier. Peltier was accused of killing two FBI agents but most people believed he was framed, including high-profile celebrities. This documentary continued my interest in Native American rights and it showed me that Native Americans were still being oppressed. This film convinced me that Leonard Peltier was innocent of these murders. I even joined the Peltier newsletter and went to Washington D.C. with friends to rally for his release. It’s twenty-five years later and conditions for Native Americans have not really changed, and Leonard Peltier is still in jail wasting away. There was some thought that Bill Clinton and/or Barack Obama would have pardoned him but it looks like a lost cause now. Although a big deal when this film came out it seems to have faded into history a bit, but it’s a great piece of filmmaking that highlights the FBI’s relationship with the American Indian Movement during the early to mid 70’s. It’s tragic, powerful and it will make you angry.
Bonus: Michael Apted released another film in 1992, Thunderheart, starring Val Kilmer as an FBI agent investigating a murder on a Native American reservation, very loosely based on the Peltier case.
MG: So glad you picked this one. This is a doc that feels more raw, vs. the technical polish of Burns’ work, which fits the subject matter. I wish more people had seen this film, as it made me angry and prompted both of us to go to Washington for our first and only protest march. It is awful to think of Peltier still in jail, when so many others have been pardoned. Guess every president is afraid of crossing the FBI.
As DJ as pointed out, documentaries can be so powerful and eye-opening when done right. It’s a shame that so many Americans will not watch them because when done right, a documentary can be just as edge-of-your-seat and emotional as any fictional film. Burns’ The Vietnam War was a towering achievement: as disturbed as I was, I couldn’t wait for the next installment, and it brought me to tears more than once. Beyond historical docs, though, there are so many subjects that are covered, and some of them can even be light-hearted and funny. One of the things I love about Netflix and HBO is that it feels like documentaries are finally finding a bigger audience, as both outlets actively promote their non-fiction films and bring awareness to them. I know I personally am watching more documentaries than I used to even 3-4 years ago. Here are my thoughts on three documentaries that broke new ground.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Errol Morris is another technical perfectionist, and his critically praised style could almost be described as minimalist. As part of his signature documentary style, Morris always has his interview subjects look directly into the camera lens, instead of looking at the person asking the questions. This film focuses on the conviction of Randall Adams for the 1976 killing of a Dallas police officer. Adams was serving life without parole (reduced from a death sentence), and because of the questions the film raised, mostly around coerced witness testimony, Adams was released from prison in 1989. Morris is brilliant at letting his interviews drive the film, vs. moving it along via narration. His use of crime scene re-enactments based on witness statements would influence many subsequent crime documentaries and even news shows like 20/20 and Dateline. Like Incident at Oglala, and the recent Making A Murderer, this documentary is a clear indictment of how law enforcement and prosecutors will do whatever it takes to successfully prosecute a high-profile murder case. Documentaries are an important tool for looking back at history and asking questions that people were afraid to ask at the time, and also serve to remind us that the “truth” is often not as concrete as we think.
Bonus: If you liked Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, check out Morris’ The Fog Of War (2003), which is basically a long interview with Robert S McNamara, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense.
DJ: It’s been a long time since I have seen this one. I was pushed to watch it at a time when I really wasn’t watching documentaries and it definetly left a mark. This is an all-time classic and influential film that I think in some ways may be sliding into the fog itself.
Roger & Me (1989)
Michael Moore is now labeled as a far-left liberal, which I don’t think he takes offense to, but back before he made his first documentary, Roger & Me, he was just a working-class shlub. Documentaries that focused on corporate malfeasance and the struggles of blue-collar workers had been done before, but Moore’s man-on-the-street approach and dark humor bring an intimacy to this film that makes it accessible to the Everyman. The title refers to his pursuit of an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith, but the film mostly focuses on the city of Flint, Michigan, which serves as a microcosm of the decline of middle America. As Moore interviews former GM employees who have been laid-off, along with others who have lost their livelihood due to the car maker moving factories to Mexico, we see the despair and deterioration of both the physical Flint, but more importantly the fabric of a once-thriving community. It’s a community built on the American dream where promises of good-paying jobs with comfortable pensions have been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed (a.k.a “duty to the shareholder”).
Unlike many documentary filmmakers, Moore was never shy to appear in his films, becoming a visible celebrity in his own right. However, in Roger & Me he allowed his subject matter to speak for itself, giving it more of an apolitical feel. In his subsequent works, his physical presence in them carries with it his now well-publicized social/political viewpoints. While I don’t personally have an issue with this, it does have a negative impact on the potential audience for his films. It causes a large chunk of the population to tune him out as a “libtard” and refuse to watch his films, a group that now likely includes many of those same disenfranchised blue collar people in Roger & Me, who now look to someone like Trump as their savior.
Bonus: During production, Moore was receiving $98 per week on welfare. He sold his home and held yard sales and bingo games to raise money to make the film.
DJ: Yeah this is probably his most effective film despite it being his virgin production. Watching this it feels like the guerilla filmmaking it preaches. The problem with Michael Moore, despite some decent efforts, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, he now has that celebrity schtick that even I get tired of. Roger & Me seemed fresh and not setting a political agenda. Sicko, for instant felt like a grandstanding event for his inflated ego.
Making A Murderer (2015)
Although this was a well-made and definitely important doc, I was hesitant to write about this due to its popularity. However, I really wanted to highlight a female-directed work because unlike Hollywood’s track record, documentary filmmaking has a rich tradition of female-led productions. One of the earliest and most notable is 1976’s Harlan County, directed by Barbara Kopple, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary (33 years before the Academy would recognize a woman as Best Director for a fictional film). Today there are quite a few female documentarians, typically exploring more current topics, vs. the historical documentaries of Ken Burns. Female directors sometimes use the documentary platform to shed light on “female-centric” subjects, like abortion rights, feminism, or sexual exploitation, but just as often their focus might be something like Blackfish, about killer whales at Sea World, Citizenfour, about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, or true-crime cases like Making A Murderer. Directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the ten-part series focuses on the Wisconsin native Stephen Avery who served 18 years in prison for a wrongful sexual assault conviction. Upon his release in 2003, it would only be 2 years before he was back behind bars for murder. Ricciardi and Demos methodically look at the evidence and law-enforcement tactics of both crimes, crafting a mesmerizing portrait of our local & state justice systems. Regardless of how you feel about Avery’s innocence, the two filmmakers detail a damning case of law enforcement bias, evidence mishandling, and prosecutorial misconduct that should disturb every American. It took 10 years for Ricciardi and Demos to make this series, and their attention to the details is as exceptional as their ability to spin a huge amount of procedural information into a taut and compelling story. The now-famous Netflix “next-episode” countdown lends itself to binge watching this series that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Bonus: In August 2016 Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey had his conviction overturned on the grounds that his confession was coerced and unconstitutional. Prior to the series, which features extensive video of the police interrogations of Dassey, his legal appeals had fallen on deaf ears in the courts.
DJ: This was exceptionally well-done and had me on the edge of my seat. The great thing about this series is the debate that it sparked. I remember amongst my friends debating Avery’s guilt or innocence. The whole case the way it was handled, the characters involved worked in a gray area and it led to great discussions. We will never know but I was dying to know what really happened. That’s what a good documentary does – it elicits emotions. Netflix also did an outstanding job with the Amanda Knox story which is a discount version of Making a Murderer but still very effective.