Tag Archives: documentary

PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS


(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering


Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary


From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.


While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.


Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.


 

The documentary at the PBS website.

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage

Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.

Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

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When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.

 

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“The Question is, What’s Going On…” MISSING IN ALASKA

MISSING IN ALASKA

on History Channel

showposter

(2/5)

Pros: Interesting basis for the episodes…

Cons: …but the conclusions drawn seem like a stretch

“This dramatized program is inspired by eyewitness reports and legends and may contain certain sensationalized and/or controversial content. The personal opinions and theories expressed are not endorsed by the network.

Viewer discretion is advised.

There are currently 738,000 people living in Alaska. In the past 20 years…more than 60,000 have been reported missing. Some believe a number of these cases…stem from mysterious phenomena.”

alaskan-bermuda-triangle-1a

So reads the intro of History Channel’s latest supposed documentary Missing in Alaska, which premiered in July 2015 and follows the exploits of a three man team – former police officer and apparent skeptic Jeremy “Jax” Atwell, folklorist Tommy Joseph, and “specialist in strange phenomena” Ken Gerhard, who’s been featured in many vaguely similar programs and doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty curved cowboy hat – whose goal it is to explain some of those many disappearances. Appropriately enough, this show airs just after the now-almost-parodical Ancient Aliens and on the one hand, I’ve got to give the producers credit for at least acknowledging that what’s covered in their “dramatized” show might be “sensationalized and/or controversial” – right there, they’ve already been more honest with their viewers than any number of the typical “monster hunt” programs, of which Destination America’s Alaska Monsters may be the most flat-out absurd. Of course the disclaimer does leave the door open for everything discussed in Missing in Alaska to be utter hogwash, so the question then becomes why anyone would want to watch such malarkey…

BRAND_H2_MSGA_162202_TVE_000_2398_60_20150722_000_HD_still_624x352The MiA team on the hunt…

Initially, Missing in Alaska seems fairly straight-faced. Each episode tackles one possible cause that would explain people vanishing in the so-called “Alaska Triangle.” The program’s first episode deals with the sudden disappearance of a C-54 military transport carrying some 44 persons in January 1950. Numerous planes go missing in Alaska but the majority of these cases can probably be blamed on unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns. The particular incident covered in the show is noteworthy not only for the amount of people who were lost, but also because a massive military search operation didn’t yield a single clue as to what actually happened. Gerhard, being of sound mind, believes that the so-called “vile vortices” may be to blame, thus making a connection to the blatantly phony Devil’s Graveyards mockumentary. Episode two likewise travels through familiar territory, covering the team’s search for the so-called “Hairy Man,” a Sasquatch-like creature prowling the Alaskan wilderness that is rumored to be both larger and more aggressive than the typical “Bigfoot.”

Missing_In_Alaska_Tommy_Joseph_Bio-E“Expert on Alaskan legends” Tommy Joseph posing with supposed Hairy Man nest.  Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

After a narration provides some backstory for each episode (and to be fair, there’s legitimate historical basis for at least some of the subjects tackled here), the MiA team sets out on a quest not only to find experts and witnesses who may shine some light on the case they’re investigating, but also to have some first-hand experiences for themselves. Invariably (and in some cases most inexplicably), the team’s research leads them to conduct some sort of nighttime investigation, which may be about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard – is it really a good idea to go lurking around after dark in remote areas where five out of every thousand people disappears, knowing full well that bears may be lurking just out of camera range? Even if I can accept that the investigation of the “Hairy Man” might turn up something in the nocturnal hours, what could possibly be learned by prowling around at night in search of vile vortices? Regardless, these segments do wind up providing the almost mandatory infrared and night vision sequences along with a multitude of declarations like “did you hear that?” or “there’s definitely something out there!”

29EA0EB600000578-0-image-a-11_1435136401617Landscape photograph in the show is, as might be expected, outstanding.

Like many other modern “speculative documentaries,” Missing in Alaska does a reasonable job of appearing to represent authentic events and situations. Similar to a program like America Unearthed, Missing in Alaska incorporates some subtle reality TV moments: to an extent, the show is more about what happens during the team’s investigation rather than the underlying topic being examined. The documentary-like approach is also pretty solid, boasting some stunning photography of the breathtaking Alaskan landscape, but the illusion of verisimilitude collapses or is at least severely strained at times. Episode one features a moment where the team utilizes an aerial drone to try and get a wide-range view of a snow-covered valley. The drone is quickly lost during a sudden change in weather, but “miraculously” appears – with its tracking beacon and scientific gear still functioning – later on during the episode’s climax. Much as I like to keep an open mind, I don’t at all believe the nudge-nudge-wink-wink assertions that this drone actually went through one of the vortices the team was searching for and then apparently jumped ahead in time and space – that notion just pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Similarly, episode two’s conclusion of a shadowy figure knocking a trail cam around seems highly suspect – it’s simply too convenient and frankly unbelievable that this team would randomly stumble upon an unknown hominid during the course of a few day film shoot.

ken_gerhard.1322040_stdKen Gerhard – specialist in strange phenomena.  And owl wrangler.

Given the sketchiness of the show, I was somewhat shocked that Gerhard, a somewhat respected (?) figure in the world of cryptozoology and the paranormal, would appear in something like this. Maybe the guy’s looking for acting gigs nowadays, for that surely is more what Missing in Alaska seems: I would hope that most viewers would take any of the “factual” information here – at least that which the research team stumbles across – with a grain of salt. There are strange things occurring in the Alaskan wilderness and the number of missing persons in the state is undeniably alarming, making the real life aspects and historical incidents depicted in Missing in Alaska quite fascinating. To instantly jump to the “mysteries and monsters” conclusion with regard to explaining these disappearances however seems not only illogical but irresponsible. As a “documentary” then, though Missing in Alaska is not quite as utterly reprehensible as what I’ve come to expect from the genre of ghost/monster/unknown-related programming, it’s still highly questionable. As entertainment however, it does exactly what it’s supposed to, raising numerous questions and getting a viewer thinking about the infinite possibilities that are/may be out there. This isn’t must-see TV by any stretch, but those who enjoy shows dealing with the paranormal will probably get a kick out of it.

 

Well-Made but Unexceptional Document of the LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

(3.5/5)

Pros: Comprehensive and factual, with a nice selection of archival film footage

Cons: Quite dry – it plays like a television documentary, not a feature film

Telling the story of the events of April 1975, which saw thousands of American military personnel – and many more thousands of South Vietnamese citizens – trying to scramble out of the country as the communist military closed in on Saigon, the 2014 documentary Last Days in Vietnam is a competent but somewhat uninspired production. Appropriately enough, the film was picked up for distribution by PBS’s American Experience Films, but I found that this program existed in the same realm as 2005’s March of the Penguins. Like that film, Last Days is comprehensive with regard to its subject and perfectly fine to watch, painting a detailed portrait of a rather unfortunate period in American and world history. That said, it’s virtually the same sort of thing that plays on PBS on any given evening, neither better nor worse than the typical television documentary. I guess I just wasn’t impressed enough by Last Days to feel that either an Oscar Nomination or an elevated level of attention was really warranted: it just really didn’t strike me as being all that special.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM - 2014 FILM STILL - A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees on an Air America helicopter the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half--milefrom the U.S. Embassy. April 29, 1975 - Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis/ Drafthouse Cinema

The program begins with a crash course examination of the latter stages of American involvement in Vietnam. By 1973, with public opinion firmly against any further action in Southeast Asia, American president Richard Nixon announced that a cease-fire agreement had been signed in Paris, allowing for the vast US military force in the region to start exiting the combat theater. A year later, Nixon left office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and in late 1974, the North Vietnamese leadership tested the ever-waning resolve of the United States by initiating a full-scale invasion of the South. As they likely anticipated, American leadership (namely, new president Gerald Ford) mostly sat by as communist forces tore through the country, virtually obliterating the under-equipped and increasingly desperate South Vietnamese army. By April 1975, all seemed lost in Vietnam, and despite American ambassador Graham Martin’s reluctance to accept the hopelessness of the situation, evacuation plans were being put in place and carried out – with or without official clearance.

Last_Days_in_Vietnam_2Directed by Rory Kennedy(daughter of the late Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy), Last Days in Vietnam is told mostly from the mouths of various people who were in the midst of this evacuation process. First priority was to get any and every American out of the country, but there also was a heroic attempt made to rescue as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible. Many of these Vietnamese had worked with the Americans during previous combat operations and were likely to be executed or imprisoned if they were captured by the communists. Several concurrent stories are told during the documentary: some of the interview subjects reveal the situation in and around the American embassy in Saigon (which became an absolute mob of people trying to flee the country), while other interviewees explain an operation to take several boatloads of personnel from an outpost in Can Tho downriver to the South China Sea or discuss what was happening on board the vessels offshore which had to accept an absolute deluge of refugees. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reveals what was going on in the mind of the President and his staff. The cuts to black which mark the transition between these various stories are somewhat awkward, but listening to the first-hand recollections of the events makes the picture more poignant – especially when it comes time for the last helicopter to leave the embassy despite the fact that some 400-plus individuals were still awaiting rescue.

148873_origAccompanying the interviews is a truly remarkable collection of archival footage which captures most every major event mentioned. Many of the images associated with the fall of Saigon have become iconic: helicopters picking up passengers lined up on rooftops, choppers being pushed into the sea to make way for more refugees on the nearby ships, crowds of people scrambling to vault the fence or storm the gates of the American embassy. Indeed, it’s the stories relating to these images that get the most screen time during the film, but I was more impressed by the material which documented the other, less widely-known events taking place during the evacuation (especially noteworthy are audio tapes made during 1975 by a sailor stationed just off the Vietnamese coast). Edited together exceptionally well, the program makes use of appropriately somber and often quite dramatic music by Gary Lionell as well as computer graphics which identify and establish the various locations discussed. These rudimentary animated sequences aren’t flashy, but they nevertheless do a fine job of allowing the viewer to get a sense of what the ongoing operations involved in terms of logistics and strategy.

maxresdefaultHonestly, there’s nothing especially wrong with Last Days in Vietnam, but it may not be the production that some viewers might be expecting. Though its title seems to suggest a more far-reaching examination of the end of the Vietnam War, Last Days actually focuses almost singularly on the evacuation process. There’s very limited commentary about the Vietnam War as a whole; I actually found that Kennedy’s documentary almost assumes the viewer has some working knowledge about the conflict going in, and a viewer is unlikely to gain much far-reaching understanding about this conflict based solely on this particular film. Maybe I’m just too used to documentary filmmakers getting on their soapbox anymore, but I was a bit surprised that Kennedy didn’t take the chance to point out the extremely obvious parallels between the war in Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. This sort of commentary may have stretched the boundaries of what a PBS documentary was expected to do, but I think some provocative content would have been beneficial in a film that walked the straight and narrow almost to a fault.

p02wr6d3In some ways, it’s to the film’s credit that Last Days in Vietnam does stay so focused on the task at hand and keep its eye on the prize.  Still, this documentary seemed a bit dry to me – certainly, it covers its subject quite well, but the film’s payoff seemed rather meager since there wasn’t a big message or obvious point that revealed itself in its final moments. Additionally, the lack of much directorial flair or pizazz made this play like a typical made-for-TV piece and it didn’t at all strike me as something entirely worthy of a theatrical release. If anything, I might say that Kennedy’s film is noticeably plain and entirely ordinary, a film that’s watchable because of the compelling stories being told by its interview subjects, not because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. Without doubt, Last Days in Vietnam is a well-made, informative, and interesting documentary, but it won’t hold much appeal to those not already interested in the subject. Though it’s worthwhile, I’d give it only a moderate recommendation.

la-et-turan-last-days-in-vietnam-20140918

3/10 : Isolated glimpses of combat violence and related fatalities, though not overly graphic

2/10: A couple instances of minor profanity.

0/10: Nada

2/10: A straight-forward, PBS-style documentary.

“The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm.  Promises made in good faith; promises broken.  People being hurt because we didn’t get our act together.  The whole Vietnam War is a story that kinda sounds like that…”

Fascinating True Story of the Man Behind the LSD No-Hitter: NO NO – A DOCKUMENTARY

NO-NO: A DOCKUMENTARY

(4/5)

Pros: Outstanding selection of archival footage; everyone likes a story of redemption right?

Cons: Doesn’t stray much from the typical trajectory of these sorts of stories

On Friday, June 12, 1970, professional baseball player Dock Ellis pitched a(n admittedly ugly) no-hitter in a game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. This is an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s made even more astonishing by the fact that Ellis was under the influence of LSD while playing. Unable to clearly see the opposing batters, Ellis had to rely on reflective tape around the catcher’s fingers to determine the signals being called. At one point during the game, he even recalled hallucinating Richard Nixon working the plate as umpire and imagined rocker Jimi Hendrix swinging his guitar instead of a Padres player ready to bat. Needless to say, while there’s been some dispute about the veracity of the account, the game has gone down in pro sports history, serving as the starting point for 2014’s No No: A Dockumentary, which chronicles the colorful life of the Ellis himself.

Starting off with a trippy intro that relates this most famous story about Ellis, No No continues on by following the man’s career from his early days playing ball around his California neighborhood through various minor league assignments. In the 1960s, the world of professional baseball was quite a different place then it is today – particularly for black players assigned to teams based in the American south. Though he was, for the first time, faced with discrimination, Ellis didn’t stop standing up for his beliefs, and by the time he broke into the majors in 1968 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was an outspoken proponent of African-American rights (eventually being dubbed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” due to his attention-grabbing antics). This caused some problems throughout his playing career, since Ellis frequently got into disputes with team management who didn’t particularly appreciate his challenges to their authority. Still, Ellis won the World Series with the Pirates in 1971, and his solid numbers ensured that he was able to find a home in pro ball, spending time with both New York teams, Oakland and Texas before retiring after the 1979 season.

dockellisposter-e1409184510151-228x300Ellis during his playing career, with trademark hair curlers.

On thing a viewer clearly takes away from this Dockumentary is that Ellis was a bit of a hothead and troublemaker, though for the most part, he seemed to not only know what he was doing, but why he was doing it. One of the key moments in the film occurs when Ellis himself, recorded in the mid-2000s, reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson. This letter essentially thanked Ellis for continuing the fight for equal rights for minority players in the world of pro sports, but also warned him about the toll that this fight might have on him. Ellis gets quite emotional while reading the letter, and it’s immediately clear how much the letter and the sentiments it echoed meant to him.

207981_001It’s cool that the filmmakers were able to secure actual interview footage in which Ellis tells his own story; he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.

This emotional moment comes as a bit of a surprise during the film however since a good deal of No No details the wild lifestyle and heavy drug use that accompanied Ellis’s playing career. In the years after his retirement, Ellis admitted that he never played a game without some sort of drugs – whether they be amphetamines, cocaine, or even LSD – in his system, and one sidepoint in the film is to detail how rampant drugs were in the MLB of the 1970s. Former players interviewed here attest to the fact that uppers like Dexamyl were used by an estimated sixty percent or more of pro ball players because it gave them an edge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even after the so-called “greenies” were banned, underground usage continued virtually unabated. Ellis’s substance problems didn’t stop on the field however, and his rampant abuse of alcohol would eventually ruin several of his marriages.

DSCF4591Ellis, center, living it up with teammates.

To be honest, much of the material contained in No No could be taken from any number of athlete or celebrity profiles: many of these folks go down the road to substance abuse when they acquire large amounts of money and have the free time to use it. Some of these stories don’t end up so well, but for every tragic outcome, there’s a positive one and Ellis’s story certainly worked out quiet nicely. Following his retirement, Ellis got clean and began telling his story to audiences who would most be in need of it. Aside from working for the betterment of up-and-coming athletes, Ellis spent a great deal of time working with inmates, and it’s obvious from interviews seen in the film that he viewed his accomplishments in the field of counseling as some of his greatest.

dockellis_large-294x375Always the flashy – and provocative- dresser.

While one could argue that the basic story of redemption contained in No No is pretty familiar, the film certainly benefits from the fact that the person at its heart is an incredibly fascinating character. The various anecdotes revealed in the film are sometimes quite amusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, but always captivating, and a viewer winds up getting a sense that Ellis always fought the good fight even if he went about it in ways that were somewhat unsavory. Directed by Jeff Radice, the film is as wild and colorful as its subject in terms of its look, making nice use of period-flavor music. There’s splendid use of a large quotient of archival footage, including film taken of various games which Ellis participated in, and I was also rather stunned by the amount of candid and press photographs assembled for use here. It’s true that No No contains the usual amount of talking head interviews with former teammates and players, family members, and sports journalists, but I found the film to be more varied in its presentation than many vaguely similar productions, even including animated sequences such as one which relates the story of Ellis’s showdown with opposing player Reggie Jackson.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-10-at-5-02-51-PMPart of the animated sequence from the film, showing Ellis staring down an opposing batter.

It might go without saying that baseball fans will probably enjoy this film the most, but I don’t necessarily think an appreciation of the sport is absolutely required – No No to some extent works equally as well as a chronicle of the ways in which society was changing in the late ‘60s and 1970s. Director Radice does a fine job of framing the events in the events of the film with what was happening outside of pro baseball, a fact which ultimately emphasizes the ways in which Ellis helped draw attention to the plight of minority players and initiate change – for instance, the 1971 Pirates team was the first time that a major league team used an all-black starting lineup in a game. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that No No: A Dockumentary plays out similarly to other films and stories dealing with characters who fall from grace only to pick themselves back up later on: Ellis’s story is virtually identical to the one told by hockey documentary The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson that just premiered earlier this year on cable. Still, I think there are enough unique and original elements to Dock Ellis’s story to make this slick-looking Dockumentary worthwhile. Check it out if you get the chance.

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2/10: A few accounts of aggressive domestic violence; no onscreen blood.

5/10: Isolated instances of profanity, including the f-bomb.

1/10: Glimpses of scantily clad ladies and some brief innuendo.

5/10: The whole LSD no-hitter thing may give this some appeal to the drug crowd, but it’s more a fairly typical but well-done sports documentary.

“I’m not one of those guys that won 300 games and the Cy Young Award, but I was a guy that was personable, I was controversial, my entire career I was an angry black man. Although I was there playing a dream of a lot of people, but I was angry.”

Scary and Sadly, Still Very Relevant: Peter Watkins’s THE WAR GAME

THE WAR GAME

(4.5/5)

Pros: Harrowing, realistic, thought-provoking, and still very timely

Cons: There’s a reason why this wasn’t broadcast on British television back in 1965: it is quite disturbing and grim

On this 70th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test, I present this review of Peter Watkins’s The War Game. 

From the early 1950s onward, it seemed that the threat of nuclear weapons was everywhere one turned at the movie theater. As science fiction films by the dozens used radiation-induced mutation to explain any number of monstrous creatures that threatened mankind, more serious efforts such as Fail-Safe focused on the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in a nuclear strike. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb actually turned the Cold War into a pitch black comedy, but British filmmaker Peter Watkins’s 1965 made-for-television program The War Game stands as one of the most realistic and still-unsettling portraits of thermonuclear war that’s ever been made.

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Unleashing a fictional “what if” scenario that imagines what would happen if a nuclear air burst occurred just outside Kent in England, The War Game also uses straight-forward documentary techniques to explore the potential for and results of a Soviet nuclear strike against the UK. The piece begins by having a narrator reveal a map of hypothetical targets in the country, going on to investigate the official evacuation procedures that would be put into effect should a real nuclear attack seem imminent. The dramatized response of the public to this evacuation order is somewhat alarming and hints at underlying, unforeseen problems: when being told that she has to suddenly house eight refugees, one woman inquires of the commanding official “are they colored?” Meanwhile, the fictionalized portion of the program creates its doomsday scenario by suggesting that tensions in Southeast Asia – very much a reality in 1965 – or even a dispute along the Berlin wall might create a flashpoint that would lead to a full-on nuclear showdown. After a missile is fired, missing its intended military target and heading instead for a populated area, the film transitions to a grim and gritty portrait of the aftermath of an atomic explosion.

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The War Game makes a pronounced effort to explain the real world, on the ground results of a nuclear blast: the inevitable firestorm resulting from the incredible heat generated, the choking clouds of carbon monoxide and methane, the psychological damage caused by seeing so much death and destruction.  Director Watkins’s camera doesn’t shy away from depicting the more graphic and disturbing images: dead bodies are burned en masse (with one military man describing the process of corpse disposal as being similar to “making a grill”), survivors suffering from serious burns are shot by police in an effort to put them out of their misery, civilians looting in an effort to get much-needed supplies are fired upon by military guards. It’s really no surprise that The War Game was initially pulled from television broadcast because authorities believed it to be too horrifying for viewers, and the fact that the film is very critical of official protocol relating to nuclear attacks probably didn’t help matters.

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Even though Watkins never quite says as much in his script, it’s very clear that one of the goals of this film was to shed light on the irresponsible and ignorant approach to nuclear proliferation and war that had been taken by many government, scientific and even church personnel. As the film progresses, various quotes and reenacted interviews with so-called “experts” are related to the viewer, most of which now seem unbelievably naïve and idealistic: after a meeting in the Vatican, one bishop declares that he is sure “our nuclear weapons will be used with wisdom,” implying that there’s any wisdom to using such a device against other human beings in the first place. Watkins also slyly voices his displeasure about the methods used to inform the public about the dangers of radiation – we’re told that a government pamphlet detailing precautionary measures that the public should take “didn’t sell well…it cost ninepence,” and various “man on the street” interviews reveal that efforts to inform the population about the realities of nuclear warfare simply haven’t worked. The average citizen would appear to have precisely no realistic expectation about what a nuclear explosion would entail – I was amused by a moment when a couple “ducks and covers” under a table; surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to offer them any amount of protection from the incoming blast.

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It’s pretty amazing that some fifty years after the making of this film, many of the issues discussed in it are still extremely relevant. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, nuclear arsenals remain for the most part intact and at the ready not only in the remnants of that country, but in the United States as well. Though I guess it’s encouraging that full-scale nuclear war didn’t happen by 1980 as was predicted in The War Game, it’s unfortunate that the human race still seems to believe that the prospect of mutually assured destruction is the way to go – a thought process that’s perhaps even more dangerous now, in the era of terrorism, than it was during the Cold War. I think it’s important that Watkins reminds the viewer of the Biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not kill” immediately after a segment in which various citizens being interviewed reveal that they believe retaliation following a nuclear strike from an enemy is not only justified but almost necessary. This is a notion that frequently seems to be forgotten by those in positions of power despite the vast majority of them seeming to be “persons of faith”: Watkins suggests that these people have a moral responsibility for their actions even though they’re “working for the good of the country” and should answer for them. If only moral and humanitarian concerns played a bigger part in the way modern governments operate…

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The whole of The War Game is intensely provocative, but a few segments towards its conclusion really stand out. Following a scene in which disorderly citizens and looters are executed, the film asks “Would the survivors envy the dead” following a nuclear event, an idea that’s furthered when a group of children who survived the blast reveal that, as a result of this event, they “don’t want to be nothing” when they grow up. That’s the sort of reality that the world would face in the wake of full-on nuclear destruction: what would really be left in the aftermath, and would it even be worthwhile to carry on?

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Filmed using non-actors in scratchy and shaky black and white, often from a first-person or faux-documentary perspective, The War Game is put together incredibly well. The film boasts a fascinating sound design that at various point emphasizes childrens’ screams or blaring air raid sirens, and I liked the way in which various film techniques were integrated into the finished production. The film is very concise when it comes to making its points, and the unrelentingly bleak and sober tone ensures that the viewer will be paying attention. Though director Peter Watkins has gone on to make various other challenging and sometimes incendiary pictures, none has remained as relevant and unsettling as this. Even though The War Game wasn’t a true documentary, it won the Oscar in that category, and deservedly so I think. I’d urge most anyone to watch this film: without doubt, it’s an incredibly important piece, and one that serves as a reminder of what we as human beings have the power to do to each other and ultimately, ourselves.

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6/10 : Not nearly as outright graphic as today’s films, but this is very gritty and bleak, with some intensely disturbing moments and implications
0/10 : No profanity

0/10 : You’re kidding, right?

7/10 : Very nicely done as a piece of cinema, and about as sober and authentic a portrayal and fascinating an investigation of nuclear war as has been produced
On preparedness for a nuclear strike: “I think extra numbers would’ve made no difference at all toward this, 15 or 20 times the number of civil defense, wouldn’t have stopped the initial attack from killing or maiming exactly the same number of people.”

On survival: “You can’t eat a pound note.”

On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, on the problems of their possession, on the effects of their use, there is now practically a total silence in the press, in official publications, and on television. There is hope in any unresolved and unpredictable situation. But is there a real hope to be found in the silence? The world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has doubled in the last 5 years, and now is the equivalent to almost 20 tons of high explosives to every man, woman, and child on the planet. This stockpile is still steadily growing. ”

Film can be viewed in its entirety at the link below:

“It’s All So Surreal…” THE 2000s: A NEW REALITY

THE 2000s: A NEW REALITY

on National Geographic Channel

(3/5)

Pros: Nice selection of interview subjects and fantastic archival footage

Cons: Depressing! and doesn’t do much to explain what I would consider the bigger picture issues going on

The latest in a string of National Geographic miniseries devoted to an exploration of the past several decades (after The 80s: The Decade that Made Us and The 90s: The Last Great Decade), 2015’s two-part The 2000s: A New Reality, as its title suggests, focuses its attention on the period from 2000 until 2009. Examining both major news events and pop culture stories and covering a wide range of material, the program (narrated by actor Rob Lowe) features a ton of archival footage, with a variety of interview subjects, including many people actually involved commenting on and trying to make sense of these events. As might be expected, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are the thing which shapes virtually everything else covered, and the program does a fine job of establishing how much the world changed almost instantaneously as a result of these attacks. Since the series has to cram ten years of time into roughly four hours of television however, it doesn’t linger on this decade-defining event for long, pushing forward instead to cover as much as possible within the time constraints.

 350Pretty much.

The 2000s starts out with a segment focusing on the tumultuous and incredibly controversial 2000 election in which a recount was ordered…then abandoned. From here, much of the program details the “war on terror,” from actions in Afghanistan to the (ongoing) war in Iraq, with significant attention paid to the hunt for and capture of Saddam Hussein. Along with coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the DC sniper and even the struggle to decide the fate of young Elian Gonzalez, it seems an equal amount of time is devoted to popular culture and technological innovation. Admittedly, there was a lot of crazy stuff happening during this decade, one in which such innovations as Ipods, Iphones, Youtube, and reality television (wait…is that an “innovation?”) came into being, but it struck me as a little sad and maybe even distressing that Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” made it into a documentary proposing to cover the biggest events of a ten year period. I’ve often been critical of the American media covering seemingly insignificant stories to gloss over issues that people really should be concerned about, and the whole “Nipplegate” affair is about as glaring a case of that as ever has existed.

the-2000s-janet-justin-super-bowlReal news right here folks.

Much as the choice of events being covered in this documentary sometimes seemed strange, I was more struck by the discrepancy in the amount of screen time devoted to one story versus another and how certain events were portrayed. The 2000s: A New Reality is presented almost exclusively from an American point of view, virtually ignoring any events happening in other sections of the globe – save those related to the war(s) in the Middle East. This is problematic in its own right (though it fits right in with how the American media works in general), but it’s also discouraging that several major events are downplayed in favor of segments dealing with celebrities and pop culture. For instance, I found that the segment dealing with the financial crisis of 2007-8 was told in a very protracted manner that didn’t really get into the meat and potatoes of the story. Despite this being a serious event with major global ramifications, the television show The Osbournes got about the same amount of screen time – if not more.

reality_tv_collage…and humanity collectively got a whole lot dumber.

In my review of The 90s: The Last Great Decade, I was somewhat critical of the title of the program: how could National Geographic justify that label? Were they trying to say that the “good times” were over – possibly for good? Having now seen The 2000s: A New Reality, everything makes sense, since an examination of the 2000s is downright depressing. It struck me that most every item covered in this documentary either fell into the category of bad news or was an example of what I might label as human stupidity in action. The 2000s ends with a segment covering the “miracle landing on the Hudson,” which actually is pretty nifty in taking the decade full circle back to planes being used as weapons during 9/11. Still, this glimpse of hope pops up way too late in the going to change my mind about how positively dreadful the 2000s really were, especially in terms of how they’re represented in this documentary – A New Reality is almost surreal in how downbeat is plays for much of its duration.

NTTS13900OK – so there were a few moments of hope during the decade….

Perhaps the most alarming thing about The 2000s: A New Reality is that there’s very little honest discussion about how humankind should have learned from the mistakes covered in not only this documentary, but also those covering the ‘80s and ‘90s. Virtually no attempt has been made to really link events together despite the fact that many of the problems that arose during the 2000s had their roots in things that occurred previously. As Albert Einstein is quoting as saying “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – undoubtedly, the world has changed substantially since the turn of the millennium, but it seems like humans are repeating many of the same actions that have caused problems in the past. If we’re to judge by this documentary, things look gloomy, but the human race does have the power to change the way it does things…if only we look beyond the mundane to see the big picture.

NTTS13899…but this New Reality seems to be one overwhelmed by tragedy, turmoil,  and despair.

Arguably one of the more important changes covered in the documentary was the way that increased global connectivity has affected not only the manner in which news is obtained by the public, but also the manner in which that news is presented. The proliferation of camera phones has prompted the rise of “citizen journalism,” ensuring that news can literally break in real time as it happens. While this is a good thing in many ways, it also has a tendency (in my opinion) to lead to knee-jerk responses from authorities and those in positions of power. Perhaps because The 2000s was fairly dark to begin with, the program doesn’t really examine the consequences of this new school of information and news gathering, and maybe it’s not the program’s responsibility to do so. I guess my point is that I would have liked if the program encouraged more discussion and thought instead of just regurgitating information and possibly inciting a nostalgic response from the viewer. My criteria for this program would most certainly be different than the average television viewer who’s just trying to be entertained.

29906170001_4330507977001_4330455167001-vsIt’s a good thing the program sprinkles some humor into the proceedings – I don’t know if this parade of unfortunate events would be tolerable otherwise.

In the end, I suppose The 2000s: A New Reality does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It does cover most of the big events of the decade and many of the far-reaching paradigm shifts,  attempting to (superficially at least) explain the basic facts relating to them. The program is put together extremely well, with a soundtrack full of iconic music hits from the decade.  Occasional comedic elements thrown in to contrast the more distressing elements are most welcome, and I’m not sure that anyone would want to watch this program if humor wasn’t present in some form.  As a time-waster, this program would be ideal; with its moderate (if unchallenging) educational content, it certainly has much more to offer a viewer than the typical, mindless television program. I’m not going to call it outstanding, but it’s worth checking out if you get a chance.

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“…out with a whimper…”: The SHARK WEEK 2015 FINAL WRAP-UP

SHARK WEEK 2015: Final Wrap Up – Sharksanity: The Return and Shark Island

on Discovery Channel

(3/5)

Pros: Shark Island paints a detailed portrait of a population in the midst of a genuine shark crisis

Cons: Sharksanity is a waste of time

After numerous “big-hitter” programs premiered early and had been repeated throughout Shark Week 2015, this annual block of Discovery Channel programming devoted to the ultimate undersea predators faded out with, well, a bit of a whimper. Saturday, July 11 saw the premiere of a new volume of Sharksanity, a show which first showed in 2014 that more or less acts as a sort of pat on the back for Shark Week producers. Acting as a sort of “greatest hits” lineup, Sharksanity: The Return chronicled the best moments from the week’s programming, placing an emphasis on jaw-dropping spectacle rather than on well-founded science. As might be expected then, South African researcher Dickie Chivell featured prominently: it was he, after all, who had not only unveiled “Chewie,” the underwater measuring device during Island of the Mega Shark, but also climbed into a decidedly flimsy-looking “ghost cage” which placed him right in the midst of a swarm of aggressive great whites. Chivell has made quite a name for himself in the past two years (2014 saw him climb aboard a floating female shark decoy – and come precariously close to being a meal), and if Sharksanity is any indication, he’ll be back for another round next year (if not before and provided he’s not eaten).

7886I salute you, Dickie Chivell.  You’re freaking nuts.

One of the main “points of interest” (???) during Sharksanity was the unveiling of a series of viewer’s choice awards which celebrated some of the best moments from the 28-year history of Shark Week. More amazing to me than the list itself was the amount of similar countdown-type shows that Discovery Channel puts out there year in and year out. In fact, just prior to 2015’s Shark Week, the channel aired a program called Shark Week Sharktacular, hosted by filmmaker Eli Roth (who later hosted Shark Week’s Shark After Dark aftershow), that did almost the same thing, running through the best events in Shark Week history as voted by fans. Hey, if Discovery Channel didn’t keep telling us how awesome Shark Week is, who would? Seriously though, I find these sorts of “congratulations; good job” sort of shows to be very annoying: I’d rather be watching, I don’t know, actual shark documentaries, but maybe that’s just me.

Narwhals_breachYeah, but when does NARWAHL WEEK start?

Sunday, July 12, the last day of Shark Week 2015, offered up a final, noticeably low-key show: Shark Island chronicled the efforts of scientists and locals living on Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, to come to terms with an increasing number of shark attacks. In the last four years, seventeen attacks, seven of them fatal, have occurred offshore, prompting the government to make ocean swimming and surfing illegal in the name of public safety. While the local government employs a team of armed “shark watchers” to monitor the coast during specific times designated to allow local surfers back into the water (and it seems that the locals on Reunion Island do love their surfing), American marine biologist Craig O’Connell starts to investigate the reasons for this increase in attacks while looking for appropriate ways of promoting safety without harming the local shark and fish populations.

shark-week-2015_0Craig O’Connell preparing for a dive into the (presumably?) shark-infested waters off Reunion Island.

More ominous than many of the week’s other documentaries, Shark Island features interviews with concerned locals and attack survivors which allow viewers to really get into the mindset of the population of this island. Continuous images of the shark-related graffiti which peppers the island speaks to the severity of the situation, and though it’s difficult for me to really make sense of people continuing to surf in an environment that has become the most dangerous area for shark attacks in the world, the real question is what has led to this unfortunate condition. The documentary examines the notion that nearby fish nurseries and wildlife refuges are to blame, but more or less comes to the conclusion – surprise! – that human behavior is responsible. Decreasing fish populations in the open ocean where sharks used to hunt for food has drawn the creatures closer to shore in the hunt for a meal, and an increasing amount of seaside development has caused the nearby waters to become murky: exactly the type of conditions that bull sharks thrive in.

reunion-islandReunion Island…but in recent days, a cloud has appeared on the horizon of this beautiful resort community – a cloud in the shape of a killer shark.

The scientific portion of this program is somewhat limited to specific segments: a decent amount of time during the program is devoted to an explanation of the bull shark, arguably the most dangerous shark in the world in terms of the sheer number of attacks on humans. These sharks are known for their aggressive behavior, and during breeding season, males are pumped up with the highest testosterone levels in the animal kingdom – which may explain why most of the Reunion attacks occur during the winter months. Bull sharks’s poor eyesight is likely also a contributing factor in these attacks: since they patrol muddy waters, the sharks presumably mistake errant human feet or hands for typical prey items, backing off after they realize they’ve literally bitten into something they can’t chew. In any case, Shark Island certainly creates a portrait of a population facing a serious shark crisis of the type seen in the first Jaws film.

Bull_Shark_2_600The bull shark – arguably the world’s most dangerous.

As expected, Shark Island is capably made, with amazing camerawork showing just how picturesque Reunion Island truly is. It also has an appropriate amount of pathos to it, but if anything, it’s a bit lacking in the shark department: mostly talk, with little footage of the creatures actually on the prowl. Hence, I’d call this an interesting but fairly mediocre Shark Week program, one that’s probably the most interesting for its depiction of the local culture and for its finale, in which various non-lethal anti-shark methods are examined. I started to lose hope when the narration began to suggest that a mass-extermination of sharks was the only way to stop the ongoing attacks, but the show actually finishes with a more conservation-minded conclusion. I’d give this particular program three stars out of five.

55958ab8498fd.imageThe shark-related graffiti on Reunion Island figures prominently into the look and feel of Shark Island.

Overall, Shark Week 2015 gave a viewer precisely what would be expected. Many of the shows here prescribed to the “bigger is better” mentality, and numerous programs made it their goal to find bigger, bolder, and all-around badder sharks. Several of 2015’s shows continued storylines that had been started in previous years, but I found many of these to be among the week’s more forgettable offerings. Year in and year out, there are major breakthroughs in shark-related research, and I was generally impressed by the level of new scientific information featured throughout the week: it’s always a good thing when I, admitted shark junkie, learn something new from Shark Week.

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Without doubt, the best thing about Shark Week 2015 was the lack of the type of hokey, utterly phony programs like the Megalodon mockumentaries that were feature events in years past. Hopefully, this demonstrates to other cable “educational” channels that a solid lineup of responsible and factual programming can be as (if not more) effective than outright sensationalism put forth just to gets butts in the seat. Considering that Discovery has planned a Shweekend (read: “Shark Weekend”) event for late August, the deluge of shark programming isn’t over quite yet, and one can only hope the quality of these documentaries continues to head on an upward trajectory.

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Shark Week 2015:

The Outstanding: Shark Planet

The Great: Sharks of the Shadowland, Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, Island of the Mega Shark

The Good: Shark Alley, Super Predator, Ninja Sharks, Bride of Jaws, Shark Trek, Monster Mako

The Mediocre: Shark Island, Shark Clans, United Sharks of America, Return of the Great White Serial Killer, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters

The Ugly: Sharksanity

 

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A Hit and a Miss as SHARK WEEK 2015 Starts to Winds Down

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Six – Sharks of the Shadowland and Shark Clans

on Discovery Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: Sharks of the Shadowlands is captivating

Cons: Lack of hard evidence hurts Shark Clans

Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week typically begins with a bang, enticing viewers with the promise of huge aggressive sharks and lots of frantic underwater footage. The 2015 edition of this programming block was no different, offering up a few days of jaw-dropping, undeniably outrageous and compelling documentaries. By later in the week however, things clearly start to wind down, and low-key premieres are the order of the day. While the vast majority of viewers might not be as interested in these less obviously buzz-worthy programs, it’s during this stretch of Shark Week that the more scientifically-minded shows, ones that are perhaps more geared towards the hardcore shark enthusiast, start to pop up, and for that crowd, the pair of documentaries which aired on Friday, July 10th would be mightily interesting.

broadnose-sevengill-sharkSevengill shark – as the name suggests, it has seven gill slits instead of the normal five that other sharks possess.

First up was Sharks of the Shadowland, which dealt with a team of researchers in New Zealand trying to learn more about the hostile sevengill sharks that inhabit a stretch of salt water fjords and coves. These sharks have become quite a nuisance to a team of divers whose job it is to rid this area of a particularly hardy variety of invasive seaweed, making the task of exterminating the weeds all but impossible. Since so little is known about sevengill sharks, marine biologist Jenny Oliver along with shark researcher Kina Scollay and commercial diver Ross Funnell set about gathering information relating to their various habits. What they find out is that these sharks are extremely territorial and completely unafraid of humans, exhibiting pack behavior as they stalk the divers in the murky and genuinely eerie waters of the fjords.

The Sharks of the Shadowland turn out to be very bold and aggressive – particularly at night.

Filmed in an absolutely beautiful and entirely remote location, Sharks of the Shadowland might sound like an unlikely choice to be the most nerve-wracking program of Shark Week 2015, but I think it holds its own with heavy hitters like Island of the Mega Shark or Bride of Jaws. What the sevengills lack in size and mass (they’re relatively small at a maximum of ten feet in length and 200 pounds in weight – nothing compared to the 18-foot, one and a half ton behemoths that tried to eat Dickie Chivell earlier in the week) they make up for in sheer cunning and sneakiness. These creatures are downright aggressive, and seem to be lurking menacingly in the corner of virtually every underwater shot present in the Shadowland documentary. The program culminates in a nighttime dive when things get really dicey since the sharks work themselves into a near-feeding frenzy, approaching the divers from all sides. While I think most shark-related programs tend to overexaggerate the amount of danger divers and researchers are put in while underwater in an attempt to add tension to the proceedings, the situations depicted in Shadowland seemed genuinely hectic and risky. If anything, the element of danger here may have actually been downplayed a bit, which may be a Shark Week first.

151920.002.01.197_20150630_120421They may not be the most physically imposing sharks of Shark Week, but these sevengills make for some really sketchy underwater sequences.

Friday’s second premiere was of Shark Clans, which chronicles the Fox Research Team of Australia. Founded by the legendary Rodney Fox, himself the survivor of a brutal great white attack who’s known for his underwater photography and for developing the anti-shark cage, this group has, since the year 2000, amassed a database of hundreds of individual sharks that prowl the Australian waters, and the documentary chronicles their efforts to photograph and tag large great whites. Set up somewhat like a reality show, Shark Clans shows the day-to-day operations of the Fox team: aside from attempting to build and update their roster of sharks, this team also operates an eco-tourism business that allows normal folks to dive with large great whites. There’s lots of footage of large predators in feeding mode here, and the jaw-dropping moment for me occurred when a shark sporting huge, gaping wounds all over its face shows up. Along the way, the program also discusses Fox’s theories that great whites actually travel in “clans” of two to five individuals. A large portion of the research the team is conducting involves finding out more about what more about these social groups and what they mean: for instance, do the sharks in these so-called “clans” stay together all the time, or do they only meet up at opportune feeding events or during breeding season?

CJlcbs-WEAAlTMhEfforts to photograph and catalog individual great whites – but do these creatures actually form social groups?

The notion that great whites maintain some sort of long lasting relationships with others of their species is a potential game changer in the understanding of the creatures. For decades, sharks have been known as solitary hunters, more or less fending for themselves as they traverse large segments of the world’s oceans. It seems that several of the programs during Shark Week 2015 sought to suggest that sharks aren’t nearly as unintelligent or belligerent as they’ve been made out to be, though (as seems to be the case with any and every ongoing shark-related research) much more investigation needs to be conducted before solid conclusions can be drawn. Still, evidence of shark intelligence, personality, and social behavior could go a long way in getting the public behind conservation efforts, and the whole subject is a fascinating one to ponder.

maxresdefaultShark Clans does feature some magnificent images of white sharks in their natural habitat.

And pondering is about all one can do after watching this show because as it is, Shark Clans promotes thought and discussion but doesn’t really have the hard facts to back up its main hypotheses. The program builds to a conclusion where a large breeding female is equipped with a satellite tag, and the information gained from this creature could unlock many secrets about the life cycle of these animals and how they interact with one another. That information isn’t actually revealed in the program however, and I almost wish producers would have waited to air this film until they could finalize the proposed theories and back them up with evidence.

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Even if neither Sharks of the Shadowland nor Shark Clans were quite the barn burners that one might expect from Shark Week, both were quite intriguing in their own ways. I loved the photography and moody look of the Shadowland program, and might even say it was the episode of this year’s Shark Week that stood out the most for me in terms of its visuals. The provocative Shark Clans may be most notable as a piece that later shows can expand and follow up on; it wasn’t particularly bad, and I loved the sequences of large great whites in action, but in my mind, the lack of concise evidence mitigated its arguments. Personally, I kind of liked the unassuming tone of both of these documentaries: they provided a definite contrast to the more loud and obnoxious programming that the Discovery Channel had unleashed previously in the week and proved that not every Shark Week show has to be ridiculous to be effective.

Four stars for Sharks of the Shadowland, three for Shark Clans.

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SHARK FEST 2015: Nat Geo Wild Gets in on the Action With Two New Docs

SHARK WEEK 2015 Extra: Shark Fest – Shark Alley and United Sharks of America

 on Nat Geo Wild

(3.5/5) 

Pros: Shark Alley is an outstanding nature doc, and United Sharks is a commendably levelheaded and fact-based examination of American shark attacks

Cons:  Not as slam bang a block of programming as what Discovery Channel typically provides

Cashing in on the wild popularity of “that other thing” (read: Discovery Channel’s Shark Week), Nat Geo Wild channel let loose with their own block of shark-related programming (labeled “Shark Fest”) on Sunday, July 5, 2015. This opening night saw the premieres of a pair of documentaries, the more or less straight-forward nature documentary Shark Alley and a program in United Sharks of America that examined the most “dangerous” shark states in the US. This type of program typically rubs me the wrong way since they almost effortlessly confirm sharks as the “eating machines” they were made out to be in Jaws and any number of other Hollywood films, but United Sharks actually is somewhat more responsible in its approach than the usual “I was bitten” program. All in all, these two programs are a worthy supplement to the generally outstanding Discovery Channel lineup.

Prepare for some eye-popping images in Shark Alley.

Shark Alley stands as a typically excellent National Geographic wildlife documentary, one that focuses its attention on a somewhat unusual topic. Essentially, this program deals with the “sardine run” that occurs each winter off the South African coast, in which the small fish travel some 700-plus miles from the Capetown area to KwaZulu-Natal. Unsurprisingly, the concentration of prey created when billions upon billions of sardines pack together and begin their migration peaks the interest of a seemingly endless array of predators. According to the program, the sardine run leads to the biggest predation event in the world, and the documentary does a fine job of giving the viewer some indication of how large it really is through the use of almost unbelievable aerial shots that show a huge mass of sardines drifting much like an oil slick would just off the South African beaches.

Shark versus seal.

Instead of exclusively focusing on the sardines themselves however, the main point of interest in Shark Alley are the various species that prey on them. To that end, the documentary includes some astounding underwater images of sea birds dive-bombing the wriggling whirlwind of fish as well as seals, dolphins, various species of shark, and even full-size whales snacking on the sardines. As is typically the case in National Geographic programs, while the main narrative about the migration continues, a viewer is treated to brief asides that serve to explain various other facets of the creatures being seen in the documentary. Thus, footage of a great white shark stalking a mother seal searching for her pup as well as explanations about shark physiology are able to be incorporated into the proceedings. Well-rounded and top-notch in most every area, I think Shark Alley works best as a graphic illustration of the complexities of the food chain: it’s pretty amazing to learn that the sardine migration is not only essential for the survival of these small fish, but also key in the life cycle of dozens of other marine creatures and even birds.

3e1f886033e1fd9301013af3001291beBirds getting in on the sardine action.

United Sharks of America is a bit of a different animal, playing as a countdown through the top five most dangerous regions in the US with regard to shark attacks. Various attack survivors tell their stories, while a panel of shark experts attempts to explain why these incidents took place. The occasional reenactment pops up to get the viewer more into the stories, and the program does include some rather graphic images of the resulting wounds. As I mentioned, this is usually the type of shark-related program that I find distasteful: sharks have been portrayed in the media as evil, man-eating creatures for decades, resulting in a public that for a long period of time had no problem exterminating them completely. United Sharks is slightly better than the average program in its portrayal of sharks however: all the attacks chronicled here were non-fatal, and most of the interview subjects explain that they have no ill-feelings toward their attackers. The documentary actually ends with a segment focusing on a group of survivors who have taken up shark conservation efforts in the aftermath of their attacks.

ussharkattacks_460What really struck me about this program was how much of what it was revealing seemed to me to be common sense. The top five most “dangerous” states for shark attacks are precisely ones that I could have predicted beforehand: North Carolina (25 attacks in the last decade), California (31 attacks), South Carolina (38), Hawaii (40), and Florida with a “whopping” 219 attacks. I say “whopping” in quotes because, as the film points out, 219 attacks is still statistically negligible: Florida not only has a high population and a huge amount of coastline, but also gets some 26 million tourists in some three month periods – the overall odds of being attacked by a shark still level out at some 11,000,000:1 and 99 percent of those attacked in Florida survive. More common sense sorts of information is provided by the shark experts who point out ways to avoid potentially dangerous situations: stay out of murky water, avoid active feeding areas, stay in groups…the kind of stuff that people really should be doing anyway since many shark attacks occur simply because these creatures misidentify human feet or hands as potential food items. The vast majority of shark attacks pretty clearly demonstrate that most sharks have no real interest in eating people for food: if they really wanted to, large sharks could very easily kill and devour even a large human victim. That they typically simply instigate an exploratory bite then back away shows that humans typically aren’t on the menu, but given the shark’s killer hardware, it’s not a shock that they still inflict brutal and sometimes fatal damage to people.

il_fullxfull.296482482Even an exploratory bite can be deadly when you’re working with this sort of hardware.

Overall, the opening night of Shark Fest was worthwhile though not remarkable. The Shark Alley documentary was extremely well-made with some magnificent photography (a shot filmed through a sea-side cliff showing the commotion going on out at sea is jaw-dropping), and United Sharks of America is more progressive in its underlying message than I would have thought. Even if this second program didn’t really provide much new information to me specifically, there’s no doubt it would be helpful and interesting to viewers who might not have as clear an understanding of sharks and their behavioral patterns. These two shows appear to be the only brand new documentaries aired on Nat Geo Wild throughout the week, and though I probably wouldn’t label either as must-see television, they’re far from being a complete waste of time – if you’re interested and they’re on, check them out.

Four stars for Shark Alley, three for United Sharks of America.

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