Five Came Back is one of the best films made about Hollywood’s role in shaping the American narrative, specifically during World War II. The three-part series began streaming on Netflix yesterday, and is currently screening in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles to ensure its Oscar eligibility. Based on the book by our pal Mark Harris, and directed by Laurent Bouzerau, Five Came Back dives deep into the wartime careers of five legendary directors – all Oscar winners – who made documentaries during the war: John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, Frank Capra and John Huston. Narrated by Meryl Streep, the story builds momentously along the way with commentary from prominent directors Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan and Frances Ford Coppola, whose knowledge of cinema history and the work of these directors further enhances what is already a deeply enriching experience. Bouzerau weaves the material together so beautifully without ever sacrificing Harris’ strong narrative voice.
Harris is never one to steer clear of provocative angles. Anyone looking for another “white America saves the day” story should turn elsewhere. With rigorous objectivity, Five Came Back explores deep-seated racism at the hands of the American government, the revealing contrast in the way Japanese enemies were portrayed compared to German foes, and how black US servicemen were treated and depicted differently from white American soldiers.
Still, the 2nd World War presented our nation with starkly delineated choices. Where Hitler and the Nazis were concerned, the brutality was unquestionable and our urgency of purpose was beyond dispute, so watching Five Came Back is an inspiring chance to see America on the right side of history. Mark Harris brings his vast knowledge of film history and marries it with fresh insight on American history during this pivotal time. As with Mark’s previous study, Pictures at a Revolution, the scope and focus of his all-embracing scholarship makes this fascinating saga quite the education.
Five Came Back will easily be one of the year’s strongest contenders for Best Documentary Feature. It’s not clear yet whether it will O.J.: Made in America its way to a clean sweep of the season but it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of films that should rise straight to the top of the pile in what is sure to be yet another remarkable year for documentaries.
Don’t miss your chance to watch Five Came Back on Netflix.