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AFI Fest: To What Remains

If you visit the island of Peleliu in Palau, you’ll find a quiet, tropical oasis. But had you been there over 75 years ago during the Battle of Peleliu, you would have encountered utter chaos. The site of one of the most brutal battles of WWII, many Americans perished in Peleliu, some never to be recovered. That’s until Dr. Pat Scannon came along. Determined to repatriate American MIAs who lost their lives there, he started Project Recover, a grassroots effort to search for the more than 80,000 Americans who went MIA during WWII, with a particular focus on searching the waters and the island of Peleliu for the remains. Every step of the process is handled with the utmost respect for the deceased and their families. 

Several years ago Project Recover was the subject of a fascinating 60 Minutes segment. And today we have a full-length documentary for us to better understand and appreciate this patriotic mission.

Directed by Chris Woods, To What Remains chronicles the 2018 recovery mission and takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster. It features veterans, in particular one who fought in the Battle of Peleliu, and details the ripple effects this trauma had on the servicemen. Some survivors visited the island, some preferred to leave it in the distant past, and all were haunted by the deaths of their fellow servicemen who remained MIA. The documentary features stunning imagery of underwater missions. At times the film felt disjointed and I would have liked to have learned more about the planning and execution of the recovery missions. However, it’s an important piece, especially for anyone with an interest in WWII and American military history.

To What Remains recently premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Documentaries programming slate. It hits theaters early December. Visit the film’s official website for more information.

John Lewis: Good Trouble

“The vote is still the most powerful non-violent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and we must use it.”

John Lewis

We live in turbulent times and it’s difficult to stay optimistic when the future looks grim. One man in particular has been able to sustain a sense of hope and determination that things will change for the better. Over the course of nearly 60 years of public service, this man has paved the way forward with his philosophy for non-violent protest and his own indestructible resolve for doing good. That man is Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative for Georgia John Lewis. And he has one piece of advice for you: “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Protestors and police officers on Bloody Sunday, in JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Spider Martin. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Directed by Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble chronicles the life and political career of an extraordinary man. Something that is key to making a good documentary is access. In this film there is seemingly unfettered access to John Lewis himself. We also hear from his brothers and sisters, his staff and many big names in politics. Talking heads include Elijah Cummings (to whom the film is dedicated), Hillary and Bill Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder and others. The film conveys a sense of gratitude and appreciation for John Lewis’ work and we hear this through the words of politicians and every day people who approached Lewis to offer words of gratitude and appreciation. At the center of it all is Lewis who guides the viewer through his life’s journey.

Porter’s documentary covers the broad spectrum of Lewis’ career in civil service and politics. Lewis got an early start in the Civil Rights Movement when he wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of 17. Soon he was a member of the Freedom Riders and was one of the key figures protesting on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. He was arrested 45 times, often severely beaten by aggressors. Lewis’s transition to politics was a natural one. He studied non-violence as a philosophy and has been a staunch believer in that form of protest ever since. He’s been a member of Congress since 1987 and as the film so aptly demonstrates, Lewis is still as active in politics as when he first started.

“John Lewis has consistently delivered a message of doing your best, being honorable, and respecting others for the past 65+ years. I think it’s really needed at this particular moment in history.”

Dawn Porter
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

John Lewis: Good Trouble serves as a much needed call-to-action during troubling times.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is available in virtual cinemas and on demand today. Visit Magnolia Pictures’ website for more information.

Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group

“The most traveled, the most colorful, the most efficient, the most highly decorated bomb group of WWII.”

Michael Cudlitz, Band of Brothers

The 93rd Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, executed some of the most daring missions of WWII. Their base camp was in Hardwick, England, a hamlet just north of London and south of Norwich. They completed 396 missions, were instrumental in Operation Torch and have been celebrated for their bravery and ingenuity. Every year the 93rd Bomb Group reunites in the U.S. to reconnect, share memories and keep their history alive. Some years they trek to where it all started and Hardwick embraces the 93rd with open arms. Locals share stories, meet with the surviving members and there is even a small museum that exists in their honor. The reunions also serve as an opportunity for family members to learn more about their loved ones who have since passed on. The annual 93rd reunion is an important example of how we must keep history going and how it is imperative that we preserve these memories so they are never forgotten.

Directed by Michael Sellers and narrated by Band of Brothers star Michael Cudlitz, Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group is a loving tribute to one of the most extraordinary strategic bomb units of WWII. The documentary includes interviews with historians and family members but most importantly the surviving 93rd members themselves. We hear from a dozen different pilots, waist gunners, tail gunners and navigators. Their stories make this film an important time capsule.

As a documentary, Return to Hardwick is nothing groundbreaking. In fact it’s fairly rudimentary. One interesting thing it does it superimposes computer imagery over footage of Hardwick to demonstrate how the 93rd would have used the airbase. Military history buffs will love the extensive information about the 93rd’s missions. Casual history buffs like myself might find themselves a bit overwhelmed by this. However, this documentary really checks off all the boxes of what a good film that preserves the history of WWII can really do. I hope it will be shown in museums and that future historians will refer to it as the valuable source of information it is.

Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group is available on VOD.

The Longest War

The War in Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. While the war itself began in 2001, a direct response to the September 11th attacks, the conflict between the two nations had been building up for many years. The U.S. government had a vested interest in a nation that saw its golden age slip away in the 1970s with the Islamic Revolution and the Soviet occupation. The U.S. stepped in to help the Afghans defeat the Soviets. Doing so proved to be a big mistake. This left Afghanistan with a wealth of armament and money and left to their own devices the country resulting in chaos and an ensuing civil war. Internal strife in the nation led to the creation of the Taliban, led by Osama Bin Laden, which grew in power over the years and ultimately culminated in a war that is still going on today. 

“History teaches that aggression unopposed becomes a contagious disease.”

President Jimmy Carter
Photo Credit: SHOWTIME

Directed by Greg Barker, The Longest War is a detailed exploration of the U.S. government involvement with Afghanistan from 1979 to the present day. Interview subjects include former CIA officials, war correspondents, Afghanistan experts and nationals. Barker’s documentary is comprehensive and informative and offers some hard-hitting revelations. This film leaves no stone unturned in the quest educate its viewers about Afghanistan and U.S. relations. 

The Longest War recently premiered on SHOWTIME. It is currently available to stream or to watch on the channel. Visit the official website for more information.

Union

During the American Civil War, over 400 women, disguised as men, served for both the Confederate and Union armies. Directed, written and starring Whitney Hamilton, Union is the fictional story of one of these women. Grace Kieler (Whitney Hamilton) takes on the identity of her dead brother Henry and goes to battle. Henry (who I will continue to identify as he) is injured in battle and under arrest. Henry’s brother helps him escape a death sentence and all Henry wants to do is get back to his love Virginia (Virginia Newcomb). Virginia doesn’t care that Henry is biologically a woman. With her brother pressuring her to marry an older man, Virginia and Henry secretly wed. The timeline moves back and forth from the present day, to the past as well as to the far future to tell Virginia and Henry’s love story. They will sacrifice everything to be together. Joined by the trauma of their past and their devotion to each other, can they stay together under the threat of the war and a society that doesn’t understand their love? Can Henry rescue Jesse (Carron Clark), the son of his old lover who was orphaned during the war?

“It took us 3 and half years to film the movie. We shot in historic homes and on various battlefields in Alabama and Pennsylvania. I had to become a Civil War reenactor and pass as a man in preparation for the role. I fought with the Alabama Division of Reenactors portraying both the North and the South at various events including the 150th anniversary battle of Gettysburg that appears in the opening of the film.”

Whitney Hamilton

While it took me a while to get into this film, about twenty minutes in I found myself completely captivated by Henry and Virginia. Hamilton and Newcomb have great chemistry and Newcomb in particular delivered a powerful performance. Civil War enthusiasts will be drawn to the level of detail that goes into the reenactments. And for people like me, they will be drawn to the unconventional love story.

Union takes great care to highlight a little known aspect of our country’s history and to show that love has always been and will always be love.

Union is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s also available on digital on HBO, itunes, VUDU, Fandango, Direct TV, Youtube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and elsewhere.

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