Why the documentary series may foster a new community of cinephiles.
In a gift to cinephiles everywhere, Netflix dropped a trailer Tuesday for their new three-part documentary series, Five Came Back. Written by film journalist and historian Mark Harris based on his book, the doc tells the story of five filmmakers who shaped the United States’ perceptions of World War II: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. Through both fiction and documentary films, these five directors not only rallied the nation behind the war effort but also helped to counteract the powerful propaganda coming out of Nazi Germany, engineered by Joseph Goebbels and director Leni Riefenstahl. It was a time when the power of cinema took on geopolitical consequences, and Netflix’s approach to the material suggests that they feel our time is similar.
Along with Harris’s script, Five Came Back is told through the commentary of five contemporary masters: Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, and Paul Greengrass. Coupled with narration by Meryl Streep, these interviews make Five Came Back a movie-lover’s dream. As our colleagues as Birth.Movies.Death. put it, it’s “icons talking about other icons and the demonstrable power of cinema.” But Five Came Back isn’t merely for die-hard movie fans. It seems likely the film series will be embraced by the larger Netflix user base, which the streaming service has turned on to documentary content in a major way. In addition to shining a light on underseen independent docs, Netflix has groomed a new non-fiction audience through original series, like Making a Murderer and their adaptation of Michael Pollan’s Cooked. Now, with Five Came Back, they’re introducing that audience to the wide world of film history.
In tandem with the three-part series, Netflix will be releasing thirteen relevant WWII documentaries, including John Ford’s The Battle of Midway and Frank Capra’s The Battle of Russia. These propaganda pieces might initially have interested only ardent film fans, but the context provided by Five Came Back may inspire a wider viewership. The series trailer clearly emphasizes the sort of intergenerational cinematic influence that film lovers discover at a young age, and which forms the basis for an enduring passion. In same way that Making a Murderer gave rise to a community of amateur sleuths and lawyers, perhaps Five Came Back will build a new community of film geeks.
Netflix is often seen, not without reason, as an enemy of “film as we know it.” The former rental service is now poised to upend not only the theatrical experience but the entire studio system, a development that some fear will spell the death of cinema. These fears are exaggerated to say the least. Netflix does pose a threat to many of cinema’s conventional institutions, but their commitment to the medium shouldn’t be questioned. After all, the greatest way to guarantee the long-term success of their business is to foster a community of true film lovers. And as their support of filmmakers like Cary Fukunaga and now Martin Scorsese attests, they know what quality looks like. With any luck, Five Came Back will spark the interest of viewers who may otherwise never have heard of Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler. And for those of us who are fans already, it’s a treat.