Storytelling is a powerful tool. The stories we tell affect how we believe and act. We see this when writers release books that captivate audiences, leaders cast vision to rally crowds for a common goal, and when educators teach lessons that reach our hearts in addition to our minds. Moviemakers are also some of the great storytellers of our time. Their work not only entertains but also adjusts our mindsets, dares us to dream, pushes our boundaries, and opens our minds and hearts. Good or bad, that’s how storytelling works. These four documentaries tell the stories of men in the movie-making (or television) business; their goals, struggles, and successes.
Five Came Back
When I saw this documentary on Netflix, I was curious because it’s about filmmakers and it’s a historical documentary—two things I find interesting. I was unaware of how truly excellent it would be. When current directors like Spielberg, Greengrass, and Coppola were introduced to the screen to walk the viewer through the journey of the film’s five directors, I had my first inkling this was going to be excellent.
Five Came Back tells the journey of five successful Hollywood directors who chose to leave business as usual and use their abilities as filmmakers to aid in the WWII war effort. Clips from the directors’ movies and their war footage are plentiful. Rather than show a sequence of their actions and films, the modern filmmakers expose the inner journeys and how it impacted their lives. The five directors wrestled with how to use cinema in the war and resulted in reenactments, propaganda, training, and documenting in unanticipated ways. Through it all, these men worked their storytelling genius to capture both the beauty of humanity and the terrible gruesomeness of the war they saw around them.
I’d originally intended on watching the mini-series one episode at a time, but once started I wanted to know how their stories would unfold. There went the whole afternoon. Five Came Back is excellent for its ability to tell history in a deeper and honest way. These men weren’t perfect. Neither was the world around them. But just as they saw, one of the great reasons we record history is so that we can work to stop perpetuating the bad and focus instead on building a better future.
See more in the trailer for Five Came Back.
Walt: The Man Behind the Myth
Although most of us know of Walt Disney because of growing up with his movies, this film explores who he was. Narrated by Dick van Dyke, the storyline is brought to life with archived footage or photos and interviews with employees, family, and even Walt himself. Following Walt through his career, one sees his ingenuity, persistence, and high standards. He was a future-thinking man, pushing the boundaries of possibility. This in-depth look into Walt reveals just how much he impacted storytelling, animation, movie-making, and later, family entertainment through his parks.
One of my favorite quotes from Walt, is “We shouldn’t just be thinking of this as a cartoon. We have worlds to conquer here.” Cartoons were but a fraction of the ground he wanted to conquer. The fear of failure didn’t stop him, but he also scrutinized plans and drafts to make them as best as they could be. He was an exacting boss, yet managed to inspire teams of artists, writers, and others to accomplish dreams no one else had attempted. He pushed the limits of technology with color, sound, animation, and even retelling stories with live action.
While Walt Disney obviously achieved success, he also faced his share of setbacks. Rejection, health, money problems, wars, betrayal, and fires threatened to destroy his vision. Time moved Walt from creative and ambitious to legacy-driven. His dedication speech at Disney Land concluded, “with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” He spoke of the park that day, but it’s true of his other work as well. This documentary shows us once again how creative visionaries with the tenacity to keep moving forward can impact so many facets of our lives.
See more in the trailer for Walt: The Man Behind the Myth
The Kid Stays in the Picture
There is a cool effect that some documentaries use to make old photos look 3-dimensional. It’s called The Kid Stays in the Picture effect because of its heavy use in its namesake film. I wondered what this documentary was about and discovered it didn’t tell the story of a child, but a man named Robert Evans. Created with the classic Hollywood feel, this autobiography follows the career and life of Evans from businessman, to actor, to producer and vice president of Paramount Pictures. Evans himself narrates the film and it’s almost entirely covered with vintage film, clips from his movies, and many photos which received the 3D treatment.
His storytelling mixed with animated visuals keeps the story engaging. Evans was full of drive, but also business acumen, an eye for art, and the down-and-dirty lifestyle by which so many in Hollywood win and lose. One sees that he reached both the pinnacle of success and the dregs of despair. While you learn his personal story, it is interwoven with the growth of Paramount and the changes in movies over the decades covered. At a critical point at the end of the 1960’s, Evans explained his goal for Paramount by saying, “We at Paramount don’t look at ourselves as passive backers of film. We look at ourselves as a creative force unto our self. And that is why Paramount is going to be paramount to the industry in the 70’s.” They did just that with blockbuster films like Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, and The Godfather, which pushed the edges of what was typically considered a successful script.
Robert Evans had a powerful hand in producing films for the late 20th century and continues to create films today. Unlike some of the other moviemakers highlighted in this blog, Evans’ film is gritty and reveals the darker sides of his story. I was surprised to come across a documentary that was rated R, but it was for good reason. The F-word lightly peppered some of the dialogue and nudity was shown during a movie clip and photo. The adult content limits the viewership of The Kid Stays in the Picture, but shows a genuine demonstration of the world Evans lived in and created.
See more in the trailer for The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
While Fred Rogers didn’t make movies, he impacted generations through television. Mr. Rogers’ strongest focus was on children and it became his mission to use mass media to help children through the difficult transitions of life. This documentary is not just sentimental to adults who grew up watching his show, but an inspiring revelation of Mr. Rogers’ authenticity, values, and endurance.
Interviews with an array of his friends, family, and co-workers gives the viewer insight into Mr. Rogers as he truly was. The film also relies heavily on archived interviews with Mr. Rogers and clips from his shows. The production is simple and straightforward, just how Fred liked to make his shows. For being gentle, quiet, and simplistic, the concepts tackled on “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” were often difficult or divisive topics. He wanted to equip children with the understanding and control needed to deal with deep emotions, learning and mistakes, fear, racism, self-value, war, love of self and others, and even death.
With his background in childhood development, television production, and foundational faith, Mr. Rogers didn’t preach, but communicated straight into his viewers’ hearts. He believed, “television has the opportunity to build neighborhoods out of our entire country.”
We continue to live in a time struggling with hate vs. love, tolerance vs. belief; our entertainment and media perpetuates violence and destruction. Mr. Rogers was a rare example of a man who held firm his beliefs and yet truly extended his arms wide in acceptance. His closing phrase, “I like you just the way you are” wasn’t shallow justification or entitlement, but an impartation of each person’s intrinsic value. He chose to use television to tell stories that would help his viewers navigate through the darkness of our world. “Try your best to make goodness attractive,” he once said. “That’s one of the toughest assignments you’ll ever be given.” Tough, yes. And worth it.
See more in the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor.
Each of the men from the four documentaries believed the stories they made into movies were worthwhile. Ambition and creativity helped build their success even though each faced personal struggles and doubts. Not only can we learn from their work, but these documentaries allow us to learn from their lives.