Title: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Release Date: July 11, 2001
Production Company: HBO Sports
This documentary goes back in time to when New York City was the capital of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers fans hated the New York Giants, and the Giants fans hated the Dodgers, and they both hated the Yankees. The 1951 season was pivotal in that the Dodgers took a huge lead in the National League and went on cruise control. Late in the season the Giants went on a hot streak and tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season, leading to a best-of-three playoff.
In addition to the heated rivalry among players and fans of the teams, the documentary focuses on the Giants’ elaborate plot to steal signs during home games in the latter half of the season. The jury is still out on how much this gamesmanship helped them catch the Dodgers since statistics show that their batting average dropped, pitching improved, and they won more games on the road than at home after it began.
The three game playoff is analyzed from several angles. Many involved seem to point to Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen as the real goat for his poor decisions in game. Special attention is given to the life stories and game experiences of the two pivotal figures of the final playoff game, Bobby Thompson who hit the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Ralph Branca, the Dodgers’ relief pitcher who surrendered the home run on his second pitch in the game.
Interviewees include ballplayers like Branca, Thompson, Willie Mays and Duke Snider as well as a number of fans including celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Larry King.
Title: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
Release Date: 14 May 2014
Director: Michael Edwards
Production Company: Jasmine Avenue Holdings with The Five Stones Group
Born in the Belgian Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father, Augusta Chiwy was brought to Belgium at the age of 9 and was adopted and raised by her aunt. In December 1944, she was training to be a nurse in Leuven, and traveled home to celebrate the holidays with her father and aunt in Bastogne. At the time, the town seemed secure in the hands of American troops, but within days, the German offensive put Bastogne at the edge of the Battle of the Bulge.
US Army physician John Prior set up an aid station in Bastogne and recruited a Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire (later remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne” following her death by a German bomb) and Chiwy to help care for the wounded soldiers. Chiwy helped bring comfort and healing to the wounded with some of the most traumatic injuries, and helped Prior retrieve casualties from the battle field. Chiwy and Prior developed a mutual admiration during the month they worked together, and keep in touch by writing letters over the years.
Otherwise, Chiwy and her contribution during the war was overlooked. The center focus of this documentary is British military historian Martin King, who spent years trying to piece together stories he’d heard of an African nurse in Bastogne and finding out if she was still alive. The movie is obviously a labor of love, and evidently low budget, but the story of Chiwy and Prior is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches, supplemented by archival photographs and film. The strange thing is that King does finally find Chiwy in Brussels, but she is hardly shown except in a small portion at the end of the movie and for the majority of the film she appears in she doesn’t speak. It’s entirely possible that Chiwy did not wish to be the focus of attention, but it seems awfully odd that she never gets the chance to tell her own story.
Still this documentary offers a glimpse into her heroic life and makes sure she won’t be forgotten.
Release Date: 14 July 2015
Director: Callie T. Wiser
Production Company: A Five O’Clock Films Production for American Experience.
This documentary tells the story of the night New York City hit rock bottom, July 13, 1977, when the power went out and the city’s poorest neighborhoods erupted in looting and arson. There’s a lot of great archival footage in this movie, much of it filmed by flashlight and candle lending an eerie sense of a city crowded with people operating in the darkness. The filmmakers eschew experts and show interviews with people who experienced that night – a firefighter, a police officer, shop owners, a man who witnessed looting and arson as a child, and an employee at Windows on the World who witnessed the city lights blink out, and then see the high-class clientele remove their coats and ties and enjoy the free champagne.
The Window on the World stories offer a perspective into the often-forgotten reality that in many parts of New York, the blackout was a convivial occasion and most New Yorkers were unaware of violence occurring in other parts of the city. All the same, this documentary doesn’t do a good job of explaining that looting and arson were heavily localized to particular areas.
On the other hand, the lesson that many took from the blackout back in 1977 – that New York was a dangerous place full of bad people – receives a more nuanced take in the documentary. They do a good job of detailing the effects of white flight, the financial crisis, and the austerity programs forced on the city by the Ford administration had created a sense of abandonment and desperation among the poorest people of the city. Many of the people arrested that night had no criminal record, they just wanted some diapers for their babies. There’s also a curious decision by the NYPD to have off-duty officers report to the precinct closest to where they live, and since police officers didn’t live in the poorest neighborhoods, those areas were left with practically no police protection.
I feel that 53 minutes is not enough time to tell this story. A longer documentary would’ve allowed for more interviews offering more perspectives, more details on how Con Ed caused and recovered from the blackout, and more on the long term outcomes of the blackout (such as the emergence of hip hop). Still it’s an illuminating depiction of New York’s darkest night.
Title: Into the Amazon
Release Date: 9 January 2018
Director: John Maggio
Production Company: An ARK media and John Maggio Productions film for American Experience.
The American Experience documentary tells the story of the 1913-14 expedition to explore Brazil’s remote River of Doubt accompanied by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit Roosevelt. I’m familiar with the story from reading Candace Millard’s River of Doubt, so I was eager to see the documentary;s approach to the history.
It’s a well-produced but unimaginative take on the history documentary format with talking heads, archival photos shown with the “Ken Burns effect” (and curiously also making the figures in the photos appear 3-D against the background), and film of actors recreating the expedition in the Amazon. Another curious decision is to have the recreations in black & white, matching them with the archival footage, but denying the audience a glimpse of the vibrant colors of the rainforest that the men on the this journey would’ve seen.
I was slightly disappointed, but I expect if you were completely unfamiliar with this historical event that this documentary would be a good introduction.
Release Date: 5 October 2007
Director: Dean DeBlois
Not your average concert film. Sigur Rós returns to Iceland after a world tour (the title means “At Home”) and conducts a thank you tour of their island nation. The band performs in community halls, an abandoned factory, on hillsides, and on a dam where protestors are encamped. The cinematography and the editing are so gorgeous, pairing the music with the Icelandic landscape and the people in the audience (you get the sense that a good portion of the Icelandic population appear in this film). A local choir, brass band, and traditional chanter join in the performance to add to the Icelandic cultural milleiu. It’s really a movie one can immerse oneself in and get a sense of a country’s national identity.
Title: The 1964 World’s Fair
Release Date: 1996
Director: Rich Hanley
The World’s Fairs in New York have long fascinated me, growing up hearing the stories from my parents and playing among the ruins in Flushing Meadow Park as a child. This light documentary narrated by Judd Hirsch captures the wonder of the fair through rich archival footage and interviews with people who were there. It is not an uncritical film, as the Fair did have many contradictions:
- It claimed to be a vision of the future yet it more reflected the recent past of the 1950s than the changing times of the 1960s, completely ignoring environmental and racial justice issues.
- It was the last World’s Fair to take place in a major US city, yet it was designed to emulate and accommodate suburban sprawl.
- The fair welcomed representation of newly independent nations, but also was dominated by corporations that would recolonize them.
- The fair failed to attract the expected number of visitors, yet was often crowded with long lines.
I think the movie could’ve used more interviews with a more diverse group of fair participants. For example, there are lots of Black fairgoers in the archival footage, but none were found to interview. Similarly, they could’ve looked for someone who worked on the fair or protested against it for a less rosey-eyed view than the interviewees who remember having a good time there as a teen.
Still the World’s Fair had a lot of charms, and though the planners did not intend to cater to teenagers, I can see how it became a popular hangout. There are also amusing bits like the quote about the fair being designed by “Michelangelo and Disney” and the unexpected popularity of Belgian waffles. There are also many shots of the early days of my beloved Shea Stadium. It’s a good view of fleeting time and place in New York history.
Title: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Release Date: 2008
Director: Kevin Rafferty
This football documentary has an intriguing title in that it gives away the final score, yet it also fibs about one side winning a tie game. It’s a no-frills sports documentary where tv footage of the actual game is interspliced with interviews with dozens of the players who participated in the game. For Ivy League colleges, it is interesting that many of the players had working class backgrounds. On the other hand, one team had a player who was roommates with George W. Bush and the other team had a player rooming with Al Gore. The latter is famed actor Tommy Lee Jones. The interviews touch on the Vietnam War, student protests, and the sexual revolution, but largely this is the story of men in their 60s reflecting on how one exhilarating moment affected their entire lives.
Title: I Am Big Bird
Release Date: 2014
Director: Dave LaMattina & Chad N. Walker
This sweet documentary tells the story of the life, career, and artistry of Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The film includes a wealth of archival footage and home movies balanced with interviews with Spinney, his wife Debbie, and his colleagues (I particularly like the Muppet Wranglers). While a celebration of his art, the film also reveals Spinney’s struggles with anxiety and depression, as well as his isolation from the other Muppet crew (something that is heightened because he is uniquely hidden within his characters Big Bird and Oscar). At the age of 82, Spinney is the last of the original Muppeteers still working with Sesame Street. If you love Big Bird and Oscar, you’ll love this movie
Title: The Night James Brown Saved Boston
Release Date: 2008
Director: David Leaf
April 5, 1968. Cities across the United States are in turmoil as grief and anger over the murder of Martin Luther King leads too violence and rioting. In Boston, city officials considered canceling a scheduled concert by James Brown, but instead Mayor Kevin White is convinced to allow the show go on as a memorial to Dr. King and broadcast it live on WGBH. The documentary begins with a good background on Brown, King, and Boston leading into 1968. Then there’s extensive concert footage intercut with interviews with people who were there that night (including Mayor White but sadly not James Brown) as well as commentators like Cornel West and Al Sharpton. The biggest moment of tension is when some concert-goers rush the stage and Brown himself asks the police to stand down and the fans to return to the floor. Other than that, the music is spectacular and reports come in that people in Boston are staying home to watch the live broadcast and then the immediate rebroadcast. And by the way, the WGBH crew having no idea how to produce a pop concert for television is pretty hilarious, but they end up doing a decent job. The film concludes with the effect on James Brown becoming a more vocal leader of the Black American community in the ensuing years. This an excellent document of a moment in Boston history as well as a fantastic concert film.
Title: World of Tomorrow
Release Date: 2015
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
This animated short depicts a future when the personalities of people can be downloaded into clones. And a clone travels through time to visit the original person when she’s a toddler. The depictions of the people in this animated short are childish, crude, and reminiscent of Hyperbole and a Half but set against surreal backgrounds. And the toddler voice behind Emily Prime is just perfect. It’s the type of movie that makes you laugh and then makes you say “hmm…”
Title: The Gnomist
Release Date: 2015
Director: Sharon Liese
If you want to cry for 17 minutes this movie will do the job. This documentary tells the story of fairy homes appearing mysteriously in a forest in Overland Park, KS that end up helping the grieving process of a family that lost a three year old child to cancer. The story of the people behind the fairy houses are equally heartbreaking.