“Yes, we do have nightmares. But we also have dreams.”
Propaganda is often looked upon in the harshest of lights, thought of as a tool solely for despots and tyrants, yet during World War II the United States churned out a wealth of propaganda films, and hired the best of the best to do it. Netflix’s Five Came Back adapts Mark Harris’ book into a captivating docu-series chronicling the propaganda films during the war effort, and the five men who created them: Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston. Director Laurent Bouzereau counters these directors of the past with directors of the present via talking-head interviews: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan. With a rousing, effects-driven credit sequence and authoritative narration from Meryl Streep, Five Came Back is slick and easily digestible. Anyone looking for a documentary that bucks convention might want to check your expectations: this is almost cookie-cutter documentary making of the Ken Burns school — talking heads mingled with archival footage and photographs.
Yet while Five Came Back won’t win any awards for originality, it’s so thoroughly engrossing, and the archival footage being presented is so remarkable, that the series is nothing short than a triumph.Viewers who want more meat should dive into Harris’ much more expansive book. Think of the Netflix series as an excellent CliffsNotes take on the source material; a highlight reel to get you hooked as quickly as possible.
One of the elements that makes Five Came Back so effective is seeing how eerily familiar many of the archival footage plays. In one chilling sequence, Charles Lindbergh delivers a rousing speech to the Anti-Semitic “America First Committee” that would be right at home in the Donald Trump/Steve Bannon playbook. It’s an unsettling reminder of how short a distance we’ve come over a long stretch of years.
In one of the film’s most impactful moments, Capra (via an old interview) reminisces how taken aback he was when he first witnessed Leni Riefenstahl’s now-infamous Third Reich documentary The Triumph of the Will. So well-made was the film, and so well-defined were the Nazis on film, that Capra was suddenly convinced that there was no possible way America could win the war — so powerful was the propaganda. But this, in turn, gave Capra an idea: he would turn that footage against the Nazis, repurposing it for American troops to illustrate just who it was America was fighting, and why, in his Why We Fight series.
All of the modern filmmakers recounting those of the past are eloquent and informative, although one wonders if there could’ve been at least one female filmmaker to bring into the mix. Spielberg has a nice moment talking about cinematic form, particularly in one sequence in Wyler’s post-war masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives. But it’s del Toro who is the most fun to watch and listen to. If anyone wants to finance an entire film docu-series hosted strictly by del Toro, I’m pretty certain no one would object.
Cinephiles will revel in the vintage interviews with the filmmakers, all of whom get a fair share of treatment, although Capra, Wyler and Stevens seem to be the “main players”, as it were. Huston is given the least amount of coverage, although a sizeable section of the last episode is devoted to his documentary Let There Be Light, about soldiers suffering from PTSD (back before people understood what PTSD was) following the war. Stevens’ story is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the lot — the filmmaker took his crew into Dachau and documented the horrors within. Before the war, the filmmaker had specialized in light comedies, yet he could never bring himself to make a comedy again in his post-war life.
As informative and captivating as all the material on display here is, it rushes by far too quickly. This could be seen as a positive: so engrossing is Five Came Back that you won’t believe how quickly it’s over. This is true, but you’ll also find yourself longing for more, especially in the post-war lives of the filmmakers. Once the war ends, Five Came Back sprints to a conclusion, quickly wrapping-up everyone’s story in a strangely unsatisfying fashion. Yet there’s also a catharsis here, particularly in the form of Capra, who seems to be the series’ main focus. The immigrant filmmaker returns from war to make It’s A Wonderful Life — a film that was virtually ignored by everyone upon release. Yet later, as the film finds a second life through TV reruns and audience rediscovery, Capra is vindicated — his cinematic dreams weren’t for naught. It’s a touching tribute, but it’s abrupt. But it will have to do. Five Came Back is a must-watch — don’t be surprised if you burn through the three parts in one night. And don’t be even more surprised if you head over to Amazon (or wherever you purchase your reading material) and order a copy of Mark Harris’ book immediately after the series ends.
Five Came Back debuts 3/31 on Netflix.