In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty’s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.
But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”
Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.
Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.
Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.
These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.
Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made KingKong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.
Zero Dark Thirty (Sony) has been praised as the best American film of 2012. It’s also been accused of justifying American torture of detainees and turned into a political football by members of congress demanding an investigation into the intelligence provided to the filmmakers by the administration.
That’s testament to the complexity of the film and the volatile nature of the subject matter. The direction by Kathryn Bigelow, who won Oscars for Best Film and Best Director in her previous film “The Hurt Locker,” is fierce and focused and Mark Boal’s screenplay grapples with the messy history of the eight-year-long intelligence operation to find Osama Bin Laden by refusing to make a spy thriller out of it.
As in The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty shows us what this kind war does to the soldiers in the field, in particular Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a fictionalized take on the real CIA agent who unrelentingly followed the slimmest of leads and synthesized seemingly unrelated pieces of information into a map that led to Bin Laden. But the focus is not on the personal sacrifice so much as on the enormity of the job and the tenacity of one agent (“Washington says she’s a killer,” is the one-sentence resume offered on her arrival) to doggedly follow the trail while the bureaucrats and politicians weigh resources and shift focus with each new threat. After the tension and anxiety builds through the investigation, Bigelow pays off with the raid on the compound, played out in real time without movie heroics.
This isn’t documentary, mind you, and Bigelow and Boal take some dramatic license in the details, but it’s in the service of exploring the real story of the investigation as well as the culture of intelligence work and the reality of agents in the field battling bureaucracy on the one hand and terrorists on their own home field on the other. It is intelligent, uncompromising, and utterly compelling, and it begins right off by showing the torture and waterboarding of a prisoner, a man that the lead interrogator (Jason Clarke) admits right off will never be released.
That’s the reality of the war on terror in 2003 and priority #1 is finding and capturing Bin Laden. By refusing to duck the role of torture, and even more daringly refusing to have Maya verbally condemn it, Bigelow drew some heat. While the government vainly tried to claim it somehow distorted American policy (when in fact the policy itself was distorted), others have charged that the film makes the case that torture was a successful tool, when in fact Bigelow and Boal show us that it never produced any information that wasn’t already gathered through other means, and failed to produce reliable intelligence on pressing threats.
Bigelow leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions — on the morality of torture as well as the effectiveness of it — and it appears to have become a Rorschach test for audiences. The controversy fueled interest in the film but it may have cost Bigelow an Oscar nomination for her direction, which by my measure is the most accomplished and the most gripping American film of 2012.
It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Chastain), and Best Original Screenplay, and won for Best Sound Editing (shared with Skyfall), and it was the number one choice on MSN’s critics’ poll.
The Blu-ray and DVD both present four featurettes, all under ten minutes. “The Compound” is the longest of them and it is indeed a guided tour of the set built to serve as the Bin Laden compound. “Geared Up” looks at the equipment used by the actors playing SEAL Team Six and the training they went through for the invasion scene and “Targeting Jessica Chastain” is a brief profile of the Chastain and the character of Maya. Though brief, they offer a lot of detail on the preparation and research behind the production. The least of the supplements, in fact, is “No Small Feat,” which purports to be the “making of” production but is actually a four-minute promotional piece. The Blu-ray also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion), an unconventional wartime drama from The Archers (director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger), was made against the wishes of the British government and went on to become one of the most beloved British films of all time.
This dashing, deft epic begins with the dinosaur of an old soldier, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (a curmudgeonly Roger Livesay in a bald cap and walrus mustache), getting ambushed by the new young army in an attempt to jolt the old man out of his outdated notions of a “gentleman’s war” against the Nazis, and then drifts back to show just how Candy got here. Livesay is warm and witty as an ambitious young officer with a prankster’s streak, who becomes devoted to his German rival (Anton Walbrook) and falls in love with a series of beautiful women (all of them played by Deborah Kerr), all the while petrifying as the world changes around him over the course of three wars.