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The Criterion Collection: Documentaries

Fictional narratives in film have a special power: they move the masses in earth-shaking ways by providing a true escape for the viewer. Thanks to the suspension of disbelief, moviegoers can experience the full gamut of emotions—fear, excitement, risk, love—without being exposed to it for real. And when they go home, they go home happy, entertained, and, as a bonus, maybe having learned something about the human condition.

But with fiction, there still exists that acknowledged disconnect from reality. It can be razor-thin and as close as possible to life itself, but there will always be a separation. But not so much in documentaries, where the power of narrative meets reality head-on. The real-life horrors, the real-life excitement, the standard goings-on of reality itself all come alive. The adrenaline rush of seeing characters we love involved in exciting situations ascends to a different plateau in a documentary, as the effects of those situations feel literally all too real.

Not every documentary is doom and gloom, nor do they not benefit from the convenience of biased editing and manipulation, but regardless, the true draw of watching them is that we are seeing something closer to our reality than a Scorsese gangster or a Marvel superhero. The Criterion Channel has diverse offerings when it comes to documentaries, some of which I will be discussing below. We have fly-on-the-wall looks into society-shaping movers and shakers, inside looks at figures long thought shielded from history, and slices of life that serve to both demystify but also mythologize institutions of humanity. So step into the real world here, as we look at seven excellent documentaries that examine the human experience.


The War Room (1993)

James Carville and George Stephanopoulos discuss strategy in a campaign office

Directors: Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker

Story: Directors Hegedus and Pennebaker are given complete access to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign of 1992, starting with the loaded primary stages all the way to the general election against George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, running for re-election.

The film specifically follows Clinton’s campaign advisors, strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, as they navigate the ins and outs of running against a political dynasty, an ever-changing media landscape, and Clinton’s various personal scandals.

Thoughts and Analysis: Nothing is more polarizing in 2020 than politics, and the politics of today may have started with the Clinton campaign of 1992, as depicted in The War Room. Though some of us look at past political campaigns even only four years ago as more innocent endeavors, the actions of the Clinton campaign nearly 30 years ago are so resonant today that if it weren’t for the loud colors on the wardrobe of our main characters, we’d assume it was 2016.

Now, the political motivations were present, but the actions to make them come true were just a tad more inconspicuous than they are today. We tend to have a “shout out loud and point” approach to politics now: show outrage, call your opponent every name in the book, and then move on to the next scandal. This exists in The War Room, with media groups and opponents of the Clintons trying to find dirt at every corner and expose it for the benefit of their chosen candidate (or the benefit of higher ratings).

The War Room’s primary outcome was to show how the burgeoning media age was changing politics, just as it was warfare in Desert Storm, by allowing more access to the candidates. More access also means more flaws displayed. If anything, The War Room shows that, for the most part, the image of a candidate became more important than the campaign’s message. And while current politics has a very public approach to protecting a damaged party, The War Room shows that in those early days of the new wave of political maneuvering, the fierce deflections and defenses of a wounded candidate were held behind closed doors, and not on the internet or even in public.

I approached The War Room thinking I’d be seeing a nostalgia trip to a much more innocent time when the differences in ideology didn’t make us want to hurt each other. But it appears that as much as I want to blame today’s viscous landscape for the polarization of politics, it seems the seeds of destruction were sowed decades before.

Extras on Criterion for The War Room: An interview with directors Hegedus and Pennebaker as well as producers R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger; a follow-up documentary entitled Return of the War Room (2008).

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, The War Room is available on Blu-Ray and DVD, spine No. 602.


Black Panthers (1968)

A Black Panther stands guard as a man speaks in the background to a crowd

Director: Agnès Varda

Story: Varda, the French New Wave pioneer, documents a Black Panther rally in Oakland, California, centering on the controversial trial of Panther leader Huey P. Newton, who is being tried for the murder of a police officer.

Thoughts and Analysis: In keeping with the political themes of the documentaries so far, Black Panthers switches from the political establishment creating change, as seen in The War Room, to those affected by said change attempting to deal with the consequences. Filmed entirely during a Black Panther rally in Oakland in 1968, Varda’s time capsule shows a difficult time in America when race relations and political freedoms were combining to seek justice for those wronged by the system.

The most affecting thing about Black Panthers is how a 2020 viewer can see the wheels of history forever turning. Like any revolution of a wheel, everything comes back around to where it started. With systemic racism still a persistent problem in the police forces of America, the Black Panther rally, if stripped of the specifics surrounding the Newton case, would seem like something we’d see today. Coming from a foreign observer (Varda was French), without outward bias, it is hard not to see the similarities to today.

Extras on Criterion for Black Panthers: none

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Black Panthers is available on DVD as part of the Eclipse Series box set entitled Agnes Varda in California. There is no assigned spine number.


The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Wide shot of a road at night in foreground; in background, a car pulled over by a police car behind it, the officer standing between the two vehicles in the light of the police car's headlights.

Director: Errol Morris

Story: The murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood is examined in explicit detail, featuring interviews with the accused murderer Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of the crime despite very thin evidence, his defense attorneys, the police officers, and the controversial witnesses whose motivations are varied and unique.

Thoughts and Analysis: The Thin Blue Line is often cited as one of the most important documentaries ever made, mainly because it was assembled when the accused murderer who is the subject of the case, Randall Dale Adams, was still incarcerated. The release of the film led to a review of his case, and eventually, Adams was set free. It is a prime example of artistic endeavors forcing actual change.

But besides the justified release of Adams, The Thin Blue Line also does something else rather extraordinary for which it gets far less attention: depicting the ingrained bias of humanity. Most Americans likely see the wheels of justice spinning on TV thanks to those judge reality shows or Law and Order. We always assume the witnesses are correct, the testimony is legit, and the facts are irrefutable. However, The Thin Blue Line posits that evidence is led by bias—of the race, class, and even memory. If anything, the film depicts memory as a tool of opportunity and assumption, and not pure fact.

That’s not to say all witnesses lie, but The Thin Blue Line shows that certain motivations, as well as select positions in society, can provide a predetermined outcome for some people. If a person is ideologically against hippies or pot smokers or doesn’t like black people, they are predisposed to assume the worst and can allow their memory to adapt to their preferred outcome. It is confirmation bias on a grand scale, as lives are literally in the balance.

Extras on Criterion for The Thin Blue Line: a 2014 interview with Morris; a 2014 interview with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer; an interview with author Marlon James.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, The Thin Blue Line is available on Blu-Ray and DVD, spine No. 753.


News from Home (1976)

A woman sits with her hands folded on a street corner with two men walking in the background

Director: Chantal Akerman

Story: Akerman documents society’s everyday goings-on in New York City while letters from her mother, reporting on her family’s activities in her native Belgium, play in the background.

Thoughts and Analysis: Few places in America hold a mythic quality quite like New York City. The Big Apple is the city that never sleeps and where dreams come true. But for millions, it is also just home. What seems like a grandiose lifestyle is just background noise to ignore during your daily routines. And News from Home, surely the least consequential of the documentaries showcased here, simultaneously demystifies the city while also, in a weird way, adding to the mythic quality of it.

Hypnotic is perhaps the best way to describe the film, which functions more like a fly-on-the-wall viewing of everyday NYC streets than a film with any narrative. In fact, if you haven’t had your coffee, viewing the film can be torture, as the mundane settings can easily get those tired eyes to close ever so quickly. That is not to say that News from Home is boring but that it succeeds in its main goal: to show a city not in the spotlight, but in its everyday appearance. There aren’t necessarily thrills or life-changing moments at play on a fairly busy street corner, just people going about their average day.

There is something calming about this. As I said, it helps lower the mythic air of such a mythic place. Yet at the same time, when you see the tiny, intricate details that differ between “normal” cities and New York, it almost reinforces the myth of it being a magical place. Even in its mundanity, New York City is a unique fantasyland. And since this was filmed in the ’70s, a lot of the NYC on display simply doesn’t exist anymore. It seems counterintuitive to be both mundane and mythical, but News from Home shows that even in NYC, the normal is not quite normal.

Extras on Criterion for News from Home: none.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, News from Home is available on DVD as part of the Eclipse Series box set entitled Chantal Akerman in the Seventies. There is no assigned spine number.


Burroughs: The Movie (1983)

Ginsberg and Burroughs talk on a roof with the New York City Skyline behind them

Director: Howard Brookner

Story: Brookner gets unprecedented access for multiple years to one of the literary world’s most mysterious characters: William S. Burroughs. Following the beat-generation writer of gonzo fiction from his childhood home to live readings in front of admiring audiences, as well as interacting with Burroughs’ past lovers, family members, and literary contemporaries (some are a mixture of each), Brookner tries to understand the incomprehensible: a writer obsessed with forbidden pleasures seemingly from another dimension.

Thoughts and Analysis: Burroughs the writer is difficult to understand. His books are, of course, legible and might even be legendary. Their ability to connect to another level of consciousness is superb, and the rebellious nature of the prose, especially in the time most of the work was published, was astounding. But where did all that stuff come from? Where did the madness originate from? Burroughs: The Movie tries to find out…and leaves us just as confused as before.

This is not an indictment of the film, nor is it a slight on the subject of it. Burroughs is a complicated figure, and the film does more to add to his myth than disrupt the fantasy around him. In fact, so confusing is Burroughs the person that the film adds density and depth to his writing. It also adds a level of fear to the viewer, especially in the case of Burroughs’ wife’s death. It almost adds a sinister layer to the proceedings…that all the madness had a method behind it.

But there are also moments of levity intermixed throughout. For one, Burroughs sits with his more “normal” brother, who tells him to his face that Naked Lunch was a vulgar and confusing mess he could only get half-through. And compatriots and colleagues admit to their affection for him, even love, with puppy-dog eyes even after a filmed interpretation of one of the more gruesome scenes from Naked Lunch is acted out (let’s just say it involves surgery and plungers).

You may not find a way to crack the code into what makes William S. Burroughs tick, but you certainly will enjoy the roller-coaster ride of attempted discovery. If anything, it will make you buy more of his books to continue the quest.

Extras on Criterion for Burroughs: The Moviean audio commentary by director Jim Jarmusch, who had worked on the film in the sound department; an interview with Brookner’s nephew Aaron Brookner; a 1985 interview with Brookner; five sets of interview outtakes; 2014 Q&A with the filmmakers at the New York Film Festival Premiere; an alternative version of the film assembled by photographer Robert E. Fulton III.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Burroughs: The Movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD, spine No. 789.


From Previous Criterion Entries in This Series

George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1994)

The liberation of Paris seen live in D-Day to Berlin

Director: George Stevens Jr.

Story: George Stevens, a prestigious film director in the 1950s (Giant, Shane, The Diary of Anne Frank), served in the Army during World War II. Too old for combat but a veteran of Hollywood, Stevens was assigned as head of a special film unit with the mission of documenting the war for the American public. His black-and-white footage of the European theater went to newsreels in the United States and put a public face on the war. But Stevens also filmed his own personal footage of his experiences in Europe, unknowingly, uncensored, and in color.

Stevens’ son George Jr. discovered the color footage well after his father had passed in 1975 and, as a result, not only submitted the rare film to the Library of Congress but put together this movie, which shows Stevens’ hauntingly real look at war-time Europe, starting with the beaches of Normandy to the Liberation of Paris, and, at the end, the occupation of Berlin. While the newsreels showed the boys fighting the good fight, Stevens captured the boredom, sadness, destruction, and, most importantly, the death involved in an unforgiving conflict.

Two Jewish prisoners find freedom after the liberation of Dachau

Thoughts and Analysis: D-Day to Berlin’s greatest strength lies in explaining that the war was presented to the majority of the world as a digestible product of dramatic storytelling and intrigue. Yes, lives were at stake, but for Americans, viewing the “highlights” via newsreels, the true effect of endless death didn’t quite hit home.

Though George Stevens likely never intended for his personal footage of the war to be released to the public, its contradictory nature compared to the newsreels put World War II in a shocking perspective. D-Day to Berlin has a wide range of images to show, many of them unique and even charming, such as soldiers opening up cards from home or horseplaying with each other when bored. But it also serves to end the mythic qualities of both some historical figures and death itself.

For example, in one sequence, we see General George Patton hanging around a base camp, randomly talking with other soldiers and laughing, looking slightly hunched over and older. What you’re not seeing is the chest-out, gung-ho, severe general of legend. He appears to be just a man, and one simply laughing, not snarling. In a scene involving the mass surrender of Nazis, a look into the crowd doesn’t show the enemy made entirely of 6′ 2″ blond behemoths with leather dusters, jackboots, and snarls, but rather disenfranchised youths and confused soldiers who, despite representing a terrible ideology, appear all too human.

But the most important part D-Day to Berlin has to play is in its depiction of death. The film does not edit out the scenes of carnage and, by doing so, provides something much deeper and terrifying in regard to what human life looks like when it is suddenly gone. The bodies, for instance, are not quite as torn apart and mangled as many fictional films portray. Instead, the body is still mostly intact, but the eyes are blank and one can see the soul, if you believe in such a thing, as gone, leaving a literal husk. It is sobering, especially in sequences where Stevens witnessed the liberation of Dachau (be warned if watching: the footage is immensely unsettling).

It might not make for the most cheery family entertainment, but George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin is something grander than just skilled moviemaking: it is truly important and necessary storytelling.

Extras on Criterion for George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin: an interview with George Stevens Jr.

Availability: George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin is only streaming on the Criterion Channel and has not been assigned a spine number.


Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

A sitting gymnast pulls her legs to her chest

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Story: The “official” film from the government of Japan, documenting the historic 18th Olympic Games, held in Tokyo. Initially considered a promotional project, Ichikawa diverged from the producer’s intended purpose, detailing the intimate moments with athletes and the minutiae of specific events. Alternate cuts exist, as forced by the government, but this Criterion version is Ichikawa’s specific vision of triumph, failure, isolation, and focus without revision.

Thoughts and Analysis: An entire article could be dedicated to this film alone, as what is an essentially narrative-less story can explain so much about Japan and the world itself in such an effective way. In fact, Tokyo Olympiad isn’t so much about other countries as it is humanity itself through the guise of competition and personal achievement.

The film itself sometimes provides contradictions instead of affirmations of competitive culture. For instance, after a gripping back-and-forth battle with the USSR to earn the gold medal in volleyball, Japan’s head volleyball coach appears overwhelmed and dejected. If you took a screenshot of him and were asked to explain his emotions, it would be easy to say “disappointed.” However, that is the enigma of sports: sometimes the pursuit of perfection can take a lot out of you.

A track star jumps over a hurdle with another racer just behind her

Other sequences like this include the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila winning the gold for the Men’s Marathon, a 40-km race that the entire field couldn’t finish. As bodies literally hit the ground and are taken away in “relief buses,” Abebe’s face is shown in closeup, emotionless and determined. As he finishes first, the silver and bronze medalists come through, grabbing their sides and wincing in agony.

Other ironic moments exist, like when the loser of a wrestling match, smiling ear to ear, hugs his opponent, while the winner remains still, almost emotionless. This is all intercut with the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony and the slow-motion grimaces and tweaked muscles of hurdle runners as they push and push for gold.

Without Ichikawa’s direction and Kazuo Miyagawa’s breathtaking color cinematography (he was also the director of photography on Rashomon), this unique, annual experience of human achievement might have been lost save for pure statistics and results in the sports-history books.

Extras on Criterion for Tokyo Olympiad: none.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Tokyo Olympiad may be available from third-party sellers as the original DVD, spine No. 155, is out of print.

Sadly, this will be my last Criterion Channel deep dive for 25 Years Later as I dedicate more time to the new-release film department. However, if you are interested in seeing my other columns digging through the Criterion Channel’s streaming offerings, please click the links below:

Film Noir

Japanese Filmmakers, Part 1

Japanese Filmmakers, Part 2



Also, please check out the site tag The Criterion Collection for individual film reviews of movies both in the physical Collection and streaming on the Channel from other excellent writers here at 25 Years Later.

Lastly, follow me on Letterbox’d so we can discuss what you are watching!

Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little-read books Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film and Obsessive Compulsive: Poetry Formed From Chaos. Will is a film critic at 25YL but also specializes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the occasional horror review. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers and lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA with his two daughters.

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