Documentary Review

Movies and the Men Behind Them

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Three Documentaries that Challenge

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Merchants of Doubt

We came across this documentary because it was made by the same producers as Food, Inc. Knowing the creators, we figured that this documentary challenged society as we know it, but honestly had no idea what it was about. Even reading the back didn’t really give clues as to the content. We figured we’d give it a chance.

documentary, fire, retardants, lies, politics, environment, safe, behind the scenes, graphics, interviews, science, industry, manufacture, doubt, production, challenge, future, visual, legacy, tell your storyImmediately, we were impressed with the graphics that were used and the quality of production. The abundant use of archival footage really brought the past to life and placed the viewer into the setting. While several topics were discussed, they did a good job of not only jumping back and forth as the storyline progressed, but subtly tying it back to the origin.

Speaking of content, what was Merchants of Doubt actually about? This documentary tackled several big industries and how they deceived and manipulated the public for their own benefit. The big three discussed were tobacco, flame retardants, and finally, climate change. While the producer’s bias is clearly evident, they included some interviews with several opponents…even if it was to place them in a discrediting light. I was honestly amazed at how many interviews they were able to acquire since their opposition should have known who they were.

Suffice it to say that we watched the entire film. I tend to be a cynic and think both sides of the argument can be politically influenced rather than purely scientific. However, while I may not have agreed with everything they did and said, or how they presented the information, it was engaging and enjoyable to watch.


City in the Sky

We love shows that allow us to learn. From History to Science, a well-told story answers questions about topics you may not have even considered. Even if you are not thrilled by planes, airports and the process are something most of us have experienced. This three-part series carries you off to thoroughly explore how the commercial airline industry functions!

documentary, planes, aviation, transportation, city, sky, behind the scenes, graphics, pbs, bbc, industry, bags, pilots, radar, production, challenge, future, visual, legacy, tell your storyPBS and BBC combine their powers to bring viewers like you on a behind the scenes tour of the many aspects of the aviation world. As each episode focuses on a part of the journey, excellent graphics enlighten your understanding of details and statistics. The creators travelled across the globe to show how the industry copes with extremes and talk to people in charge of some of the best procedures and newest innovations. Some of the topics you might expect: transporting baggage, plane maintenance, and control towers. You will also discover unseen, but essential, jobs that keep us flying on time and without incident. The high-quality production and scope of the story leave you with more appreciation and perspective than you may have expected.

You may wonder why this is a “documentary that challenges.” The aviation industry has always faced obstacles from the day man looked into the sky and wanted until fly till now. But the City in the Sky doesn’t wade through the history of flight. Instead, it shows how we function as the global network we know today. It shows how we tackle the immense numbers of cargo and passengers, navigate the bustling highways of the sky, and continue improving for the future. The sky is a city many of us have journeyed through, and thanks to the diligent work of so many, we will continue to visit again and again.


Babies Behind Bars

While searching for documentaries on Netflix, Babies Behind Bars stood out to me from all the other films about prisons. Instead of dealing with hardened criminals and the penal system, this promised to show the struggles of motherhood in an unfriendly environment. I admit I had never thought about the issue of women being sent to prison while pregnant and had no idea what would happen to the babies born there.

Babies Behind Bars seems like it was created on a lower budget than the other two documentaries in this blog. You can tell it was originally made for television because of the built-in cuts for commercial breaks and reprisals of the story. The workers, but especially the inmates, were open about what they saw and felt. This made for a raw and enlightening portrayal of what motherhood behind bars is like.

documentary, prison, pregnant, baby, born, environment, women, behind the scenes, motherhood, interviews, recidivism, industry, policy, Indiana, good behavior, challenge, future, visual, legacy, tell your storyMade in 2011, the filmmakers explored the pioneering program to keep infants with their incarcerated mothers called Wee Ones. Prisoners who met certain requirements had the opportunity to stay with their babies in a special dorm instead of having to give them up just 24 hours after birth. The program had only been around a few years at the time of filming and the jury was still out on whether the prisoners who participated achieved lower recidivism rates (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) and if their children fared better in society. I was able to find an article from just a month ago claiming that women who went through the Wee Ones program do indeed have lower recidivism results: 18% compared to 35%.

This documentary had a lot to do with change. First, this women’s prison in Indiana is the only place where this program has been allowed. A couple people mention in the film that it had been a struggle to get the Wee Ones program approved. Proponents of Wee Ones hope to see the good results bring change to more women’s prisons, but of course the biggest change hoped for in this documentary is the transformation of convicted criminals to healthy mothers and members of society.

2013 Study of Wee Ones:


Four Documentaries That Move You

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Criteria for Moving Documentaries

Movies have the power to captivate our attention, draw us into another person’s dilemma, and inspire us to greater things. Documentaries do so by telling true stories. We are always impressed by impactful stories, impressive cinematography, and fascinating information. Here are four documentaries that we believe meet these qualifications and inspire our hearts to act.

Nicky’s Family

This historical documentary mixes reenactments with interviews to tell the heroic story of Nicholas Winton. During the tumultuous days before WWII broke out, Winton saw a need that most of the world ignored and he saved hundreds of lives. While I would have made a couple different production choices, a ton of work was put into producing this film and theyRecommended Documentary Legacy Productions / did an excellent job communicating this impactful story. More than a mere history lesson, I walked away asking myself what I would do if similar circumstances arose. Nicky’s Family will not only leave you with appreciation, but inspiration to do “impossible” things to better our world.


Recommended Documentary Legacy Productions /

Antarctica:  A Year on the Ice

I have always been fascinated by Antarctica. A Year on the Ice is the closest depiction I’ve seen of experiencing life in that remote land. Over a span of ten years, Anthony Powell captured the majestic beauty of Antarctica and the daily lives of resident workers. As the stunning cinematography and inhabitant’s stories take us through the seasons, the viewer is able to gain a deeper appreciation of the untamed land and the struggles winter brings. In spite of hardships and isolation, the beauty of nature and strong community draw this special breed of people every year. After watching A Year on the Ice, I’m not sure I’m cut out to cope with perpetual winter, but that did not stop me from immediately searching job opportunities online. Unfortunately, my skills weren’t really needed…


The DropboxRecommended Documentary Legacy Productions /

Director Brian Ivie started this project merely thinking he had an award-winning story. He did not realize just how impactful The Dropbox would end up being. Through the camera we journey to a small South Korean home where Pastor Lee Jong-rak installed a drop-box into the front of his house to receive some of the most precious treasures: abandoned children. By following the story of Lee Jong-rak, the heart-breaking issue of infant abandonment is explored and addressed. The run-and-gun style enables the viewer to feel present in the daily struggles and successes of the caretakers and needy children. Through love, they show that every life is valuable.

30 for 30: The Four Falls of Buffalo

At first glance, this might appear to be yet another sports documentary.  And though it is about the Buffalo Bills’ unprecedented four straight appearances in the Super Bowl, it’s much more than a “football” story.  In spite of being one of the top two teams for four consecutive years, they came up short every time!  The themes I found intriguing included: how we define being a “winnRecommended Documentary Legacy Productions / tellmystory.user,” how we deal with success and failure, perseverance, and loyalty.  The documentary did an excellent job of telling the story through the players, coaches, media, and fans to the extent that I actually “felt” their jubilation and pain. If sports truly are a microcosm of life, then this story is a fascinating example of dealing with the crazy ups and downs we encounter on our journey.


There you have it; four of our top documentary picks that connected with our hearts through story, cinematography, and knowledge, which leads to actively creating a better world. We hope you too are inspired to love life and do greater things.