Five Came Back is an affecting and interesting mini-series about five major Hollywood directors who helped the US propaganda efforts in World War II. Each of the five directors is paired with a modern director/admirer who helps tell the story. That conceit is a neat one which helps distinguish this documentary from the numerous others about World War II.
This is a super prestige piece, narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring Coppola, del Toro, Greengrass, Kasdan and Spielberg, each paired with one of the five directors, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. As I mentioned above, the conceit is effective and a new enough take on the format to keep you interested.
The topic itself is a problematic one, as it is an uncritical film about propaganda which focuses on the experiences of the directors and the films they made and completely skirts the idea of whether or not they should have done it. Of course, if there’s one war that should receive this treatment, I think most of us would agree that war is World War II. So I don’t necessarily see it as problematic that this series views the propaganda as necessary and noble, as opposed to what it actually is, propaganda. (Some of which was contrived.)
The strength of the series is that it is able to tell the story of US involvement in World War II in a new light, through the eyes of these five directors who went to various theatres, filming sometimes quite close to the front lines. The perspectives of the directors themselves, as well as their proxies telling their stories, are welcome and unusual enough compared to previous documentary series on the war that even someone like me – a WWII-obsessed teenager – feels like there is something fresh here. It also puts the war in the context of the directors’ careers.
But the issues inherent in the nature of propaganda are basically never explored which is why this documentary is only good.