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TagBiographical Documentaries

Armstrong

“He was that rarest of men. One who simply did what he believed was right. Nothing more, nothing less.” – Charlie Mechem

Photo source: Gravitas Ventures
Photo source: Gravitas Ventures

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space mission and the landing of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins set out on a dangerous mission and their accomplishment remains unparalleled to this day. Director David Fairhead’s new documentary simply titled Armstrong focuses on Commander Neil Armstrong. Through archival footage and interviews with the family members and peers who knew him best, the film takes us on a journey through the life of an extraordinary yet reserved man. Actor Harrison Ford narrates the film using Armstrong’s own words in the absence of the man himself who passed away in 2012.

As a young boy fascinated with airplanes, Armstrong sought out a pilot license before he even wanted to drive a car. Soaring above the earth was his natural state of being and his early training as a pilot led to his career as a fighter pilot in the Navy. A near death experience during the Korean War changed his life forever and set the course for his future career as an astronaut. The documentary explores his early days as a pilot, his education and transition into NASA, his home life, the tragic loss of his two year old daughter Karen, his work on Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Apollo 11 and most notably Armstrong’s life and career after that epic mission. Helping paint a portrait of this legendary man are his sons Mark and Rick Armstrong, his first wife Janet Armstrong, his sister June, plus various friends and peers as well as astronauts Joe Engle, David Scott, Frank Borman and Mike Collins, all legends in and of themselves.

The biggest takeaway from the documentary is the lost culture of mid-20th Century Cold War America. Throughout the film, Armstrong is presented as this man who believed in working hard, keeping your nose clean, not complaining and moving on from great tragedies. It was also an innovative time when the field of aeronautics and space exploration was new and rapidly changing. There was this intrinsic desire to accomplish big things for the advancement of mankind. It was a challenging era but also a ground-breaking one. Things have shifted so much and we’ve lost that desire to work hard, keep our emotions in check and to achieve goals for something bigger than ourselves.

Armstrong is an intimate portrait of an extraordinary individual and required viewing for anyone who appreciated Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Man but craved more. (You can read my review of that film here.) The greatest value this documentary has to offer is the abundance of pristine archival footage, including home video, news clips, footage from NASA, some of which has never before been seen by the public. It plays with format presenting much of this footage in the center of the screen rather than stretching it out to fit the widescreen. A biographical documentary or even a biopic that has the blessing of the subject’s family can be a double-edged sword in terms of output. There’s a benefit of having so much access to people close to the subject but it will come with an inherent bias that will filter the story. Viewers can take the documentary with a grain of salt while still appreciating the fresh new material it has to offer. I for one appreciate what biographic documentaries can do that biopics cannot; rely on the real footage and real stories to tell the story that needs to be told. 

Armstrong released in theaters and on VOD from Gravitas Ventures on Friday July 12th.

The Spy Behind Home Plate

“He was a man apart… different from the others.”

Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.

Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German. 

A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.

The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.

The Lavender Scare

On April 27th, 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order #10450. This order enabled his administration to orchestrate a witch hunt seeking out anyone in the federal government who might be homosexual. These employees were either encouraged to resign or outright fired. They were also denied employment in other branches and sectors of the government. Homosexuals were deemed a “security risk” and denied clearance. They were often threatened with exposure and coerced to name names much like the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. This persecution, known as the “lavender scare”, continued for over four decades until the Clinton administration ended the ban. In the years in between, tens of thousands of employees lost their jobs. Careers ended and lives were forever changed. However in the midst of the Cold War paranoia of the lavender scare, the seed was planted for the gay rights movement. What originally was intended as a moral crackdown helped spur a rebellion against oppression.

Director Josh Howard’s new documentary The Lavender Scare examines a dark time in the history of our government and our culture. The film was inspired by David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book by the same name. Talking heads include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. Known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.

“It’s a story that’s both tragic and triumphant. It tells of the heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers – and even their lives – as a result of the government’s brutal tactics.
But it is uplifting as well. It shows how the policy of discrimination stirred a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped ignite what was to become the gay rights movement.”

Director Josh Howard

Howard’s documentary is an interesting mix of first and second hand accounts, FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. It’s narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.

I do wish there was a bit more information about the post WWII when the LGBT community moved to Washington D.C. in search of government work. There were some other bits of history I wanted to know more about (Kinsey Report findings, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, etc.) but I felt like the documentary did a surface level look and not a deep dive. There was perhaps too much going on and it lost focus. However, this film serves as an important primer on a lesser known aspect of our government’s history. The Lavender Scare doesn’t leave us in despair but fills us with hope that this dark history is behind us and we can learn from it for a better future.

The Lavender Scare released in NY and Los Angeles this month in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Visit the official website to check out dates for future screenings. It will have it’s nationwide PBS premiere on June 18th.

SXSW: Strange Negotiations

“There’s this push for your faith to be fully integrated into your person, into your identity.”

David Bazan on being Evangelical Christian

In 2006, Christian Rock star David Bazan left his band Pedro the Lion to pursue a solo career. Bazan’s entire world had been deeply entrenched in Evangelical Christianity. When he begins to question his belief and ultimately loses his faith he struggles to find a way to maintain his music career and support his family.

Director Brandon Vedder’s documentary Strange Negotiations follows Bazan a decade into his journey as he travels across the country as a solo act, performing in fan’s living rooms and in many other venues. There is this sense of community when you’re religious. It almost acts as a safety net. And when everyone in your life, your friends, your family, and your colleagues are in that world, leaving it can be incredibly isolating. The viewer goes on a road trip with Bazan and he becomes a spiritual guide. In interviews, we hear Bazan process his past, present and future within the scope of his religion and his personal struggles. Bazan’s story is juxtaposed with NPR coverage of the Evangelical movement in the U.S. and how that has effected the current political climate.

“I [saw] vulnerability as the antidote to all this anxiety and self-loathing.”

David Bazan

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. I still have mixed feelings about the use of fancy drone shots but in this case it just plain works. The drone flies high above the barren landscape of the Bible Belt as we follow Bazan on his road trip. These shots are gorgeous, almost ethereal. It’s as if we’re seeing Bazan’s world from an angel’s point of view. The camera also gets right up into the personal space of its subject with Bazan being filmed in a tight frame while in conversation, driving through an urban landscape or in the intimate space of one of his performances.

Strange Negotiations is a poetic and deeply personal documentary about the loss of faith and the struggle to find oneself. If you’re someone, like me, whose struggled with faith, you may find a kindred spirit in Bazan. If the faith aspect doesn’t speak to you, it’s simply an interesting story about a musician at a crossroads in his life and career.

Strange Negotiations had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second documentary series.

SXSW: Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall

“These people have let you into their lives… to violate that trust is criminal.”

Jim Marshall (1936-2010)

In Jim Marshall’s illustrious career as the photographer to the stars, he captured some of the most enduring images of Rock-n-Roll legends. He elevated artists with quality photographs, capturing their images with a level of intimacy that required trust and an attention to detail that signaled respect. And that’s what these artists had with Jim Marshall, a mutual admiration. The musicians offered him their vulnerability and he in return showcased them as the rock stars they were.

In director Alfred George Bailey’s new documentary, Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, we learn about the man behind the camera. From his early days making a photography scrapbook, to his legendary career as a celebrity photographer, this film charts the ups and downs of this talented yet difficult man’s life. It includes footage of Marshall reminiscing about his career as well as interviews with the people who knew him best including his former assistant Amelia Davis, fellow photographers, friends, musicians and a variety of experts. Notable talking heads include actor Michael Douglas (Marshall was an on-set photographer for the show The Streets of San Francisco) and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Who did Jim Marshall photograph exactly? Everybody. In the documentary we learn about his work with some of the following artists:

  • Janis Joplin
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • John Coltrane
  • The Grateful Dead
  • Bob Dylan
  • Joan Baez
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • Ray Charles
  • Miles Davis
  • Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Thelonius Monk
  • The Beatles
  • The Who
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Doors
  • Johnny Cash

“Jim had an eye for the moment.”

Graham Nash

The biggest takeaway from this film is not the legends Marshall collaborated with, although that is pretty interest too, but the analysis of what it took for him to do his job and to do it well. We learn about how a photographer relates to his subject. Marshall was an active and passive participant. He blended in seamlessly with the scene yet was not afraid to plant himself into the personal space of his subjects. 

“He died like a fucking rock star.”

Amelia Davis

Jim Marshall was quite a character himself. His love of guns and his drug use got him into trouble. And his temperamental personality often ostracized those near and dear to him. There is a dark side to every great artist and Marshall was no exception. Yet his body of work speaks for itself.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall is a compelling portrait of a difficult man with great talent who made an impact on the careers of the 20th century rock stars we know and love.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second series.

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