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Five Came Back
★★☆☆☆
First run Screening room

Five Came Back is a documentary feature based on the 2014 non-fiction book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by journalist and film historian Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008). Like the engrossing, movingly written book it draws from, the film explores the wartime experiences of five major American movie directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens—who left Hollywood and joined the armed forces on the front lines of World War II to make documentaries, newsreels, training films, and propaganda pictures in support of the U.S. war effort.

Released simultaneously as a roughly three hour stand-alone theatrical feature and a three part Netflix “series,” the film version, written by Harris, follows the same basic structure as the book. It begins by discussing the various studio careers of its five subjects and what they were giving up by volunteering for service. It then follows the ways in which each man got into the war; the different rivalries, collaborations, triumphs, and disappointments they faced during their time in the field; and, most critically, how their work influenced the public’s perception of the conflict, and how their different experiences of war changed each of them as both filmmakers and men. 

The documentary, narrated by Meryl Streep, lacks Harris’s vibrant prose style and his ability to use written language to transport readers into the era he makes palpable. Instead, Harris and director Laurent Bouzereau use clips from the documentaries their subjects made as well as archival interviews. Since so little filmed interview footage exists of these directors discussing their wartime activities, Harris and Bouzereau pair each of the five with a contemporary counterpart who discusses in detail the experience, impact, and legacy of each man.

The modern day surrogates align well with the filmmakers they represent. Steven Spielberg, one of the most popular and prolific studio directors of all time, speaks for Wyler, a similarly enduring filmmaker who made both deeply personal and highly commercial pictures.  Hollywood outsider Francis Ford Coppola holds forth on the maverick individualist Huston. Paul Greengrass speaks for Ford, pointing out how the stylistic choices the great director made with his wartime documentaries helped create as many of the cinematic conventions still in use today as he did with his iconic narrative features. Guillermo del Toro rhapsodizes about Capra, even though many of Capra’s contributions to the war effort were controversial at the time and even more problematic when viewed in hindsight. And Lawrence Kasdan, whose screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark draws inspiration from Stevens’ last prewar picture, Gunga Din, elucidates the differences between the movies Stevens made before his service and the work he did after being part of the team that liberated the Dachau death camp, where he photographed the first footage the world saw of the Holocaust.

Yet with all these eloquent talking heads and the mountains of archival footage available to help illustrate their talking points, the film version of Five Came Back doesn’t engage to the degree it should. Considering the fascinating and complicated men at its center, and the profound, pivotal place in history they occupy, these stories should rivet film buffs, history lovers, and casual viewers alike. But where the book draws readers in with its exquisite combination of rich characterization, historical detail, and insightful analysis, the movie oddly keeps viewers at a reserved distance. It feels like a supplement to the book, rather than a cinematic interpretation that stands on its own. 

Perhaps this adjunct feeling should not come as a surprise, considering director Bouzereau comes from the world of supplemental material. The bestselling author and documentarian is the most prolific producer of behind-the-scenes bonus features made for laserdisc, DVD, and BluRay editions of movies. Having written, produced, and directed expansive and entertaining “making-of” documentaries for some of the biggest films in cinema history, much of his work understandably falls into a predictable formula. Bouzereau builds his bonus features around interviews with participants in the various movies he profiles; they share their memories, tall tales, and on-set anecdotes. This approach to documentary is effective when the subject is something viewers already know well—as is usually the case with supplemental material. But in the context of a movie like Five Came Back, which must provide a vast amount of historical context, exposition, and personal reflection, the generic intercutting of film clips, narration, and talking heads comes off as deficient. And with a running time of more than three hours, we expect more in-depth digging into the less than heroic aspects of these men, which are only briefly alluded to.

A movie like this should wet a viewer’s appetite for more information.  Harris and Bouzereau’s picture should instill in us the desire to rush out and buy the book on which it’s based. However, for those who don’t already know the treasures contained within that thick volume, the documentary comes off as surprisingly insubstantial.

Twitter Capsule:
#fivecameback (’17) ★★ A fine supplement to Harris’s book but surprisingly lacking in specifics and emotional power.

Directed by Laurent Bouzereau
Produced by John Battsek and Laurent Bouzereau

Written by Mark Harris
Based on the book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

With: Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, and and the voice of Meryl Streep

Cinematography: Sean Kirby
Editing: Will Znidaric
Music: Jeremy Turner

Runtime: 188 min
Release Date: 31 March 2017
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Color