True Films

Investigative

Restrepo


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This documentary about life on the battle field in Afghanistan gets high praise from soldiers as being “exactly what it is like.” The film begins with cocky young American rookies fresh off the plane getting shelled by insurgents before they reach their first destination. It may look like a first-person shooter video game, but the raw footage makes you quickly realize that this battle is far more pitiful than any game could be. It’s a game no one wants to play. When the besieged soldiers finally fight, their adrenaline peaks, but it peters out by the end of this story as they confront the head-banging futility of this war. (Later the outpost they so valiantly conquered is abandoned.) We are given faces to this, the longest war of the US. We get to know the comrades one by one, and the film is named after one beloved guy who is killed. The main achievement of this film (and the parallel book by the author/director) is to convey that what keeps the guys going, the reason they fight, is not any large idea, but to simply not let their comrades down. This movie is a real life Band of Brothers.

(Filming this was life threatening. The co-director was later killed in action while photographing the war in Libya.)

– KK

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Restrepo
Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington
2010, 93 minutes
$4, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm | comments
in category Investigative


Food, Inc.


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Food, Inc. is a very smart, very visual explanation of the industrial nature of our food system. Some of the characters and arguments are repeated from Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I have reviewed previously), and Pollan plays a large role in this film. Like the book, this film makes a very memorable case for the downsides of agribusiness, although, unlike the book, it is light on solutions. Nonetheless, the film is eye-opening, head-shaking, and disturbing in a good way. If you eat in America, you really should see this film to get a sense of what you are eating. It’s one of a handful of true films than change people’s behavior.

– KK

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Food, Inc.
Robert Kenner
2008, 94 minutes
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:02 pm | comments
| in category Investigative


The Cove


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This is far more entertaining than your usual “cause” film. It’s sort of a real-world Mission Impossible with lots of high tech gear and a team of dedicated enthusiasts. The thrill of this documentary, filmed in Japan, is to watch a desperate anti-dolphin-killing activist assemble an undercover spy team to plant hidden hi-def and infrared cameras in the tightly guarded cove where the annual dolphin mass killings take place. Because of international media attention and the secluded nature of the tiny Japanese fishing village where everyone is protecting their livelihood, documenting the dolphin killing became a cat-and-mouse game. There’s plenty of suspense. Additionally, there is righteous pleasure at the climax in the clever PR stunts the activists engage in to spotlight the killings and cover-ups. Oh, and I bet the film will probably be a pretty effective in stopping this secret slaughter.

– KK

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The Cove
Louie Psihoyos
2009, 92 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Related resources:
Take Part: The Cove
Save Japan Dolphins

Posted February 25, 2010 at 2:00 pm | comments
| in category Investigative


American Dream


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Once upon a time unions were central to the American economy and culture. No more. What they once were and what they’ve now become can be seen in this detailed documentary about an 8-month-long strike at the Spam meat packing plant in Minnesota. It feels like the last gasp of former heavy weight. As the local union fights in total desperation, first against management, then their own national union, and eventually against each other, the unexpected drama kept me watching.

– KK

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American Dream
Barbara Kopple
1991, 102 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted June 12, 2008 at 3:35 am | comments
| in category Investigative


Sicko


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As usual Michael Moore parades a series of on-camera publicity stunts to make a larger point: universal health care in the US is possible, desirable, and even all-American. Health care insurance may seem like the least likely fun subject to have to sit through, but as usual Moore is so hugely entertaining, you won’t regret it. I have no idea if this film has changed anyone else’s mind, but it moved mine a bit. It doesn’t take much to blow holes in the current system. If you keep in mind that Moore makes agitprop films — films that are not meant to be evenhanded and balanced — then his jeremiads against the failures of this large health system make great watching. It is theater in the best sense of the word.

– KK

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Sicko
Michael Moore
2007, 123 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted December 18, 2007 at 9:42 am | comments
| in category Investigative


Stone Reader


Everyone has a book they read as a teenager that changed their life. When he was 17, the guy making this documentary read a book review in the New York Times that heralded a new first novel by a young author as the voice of his generation, and one of the greatest novels written. Our guy never finished the book, but later in his 50′s (that’s now) he finally reads the whole thing and decides that it was indeed one of the greatest novels ever written. But there’s not a trace of the brilliant author anywhere including the web. How odd! He writes one of the best books ever, which no one reads, and then disappears. None of the teachers, critics, editors who worked on the book, or even his agent knows what happened to him. The film then becomes a quest for this disappeared genius. The obsessed director travels all around the country trying to track him down. Along the way, he interviews book-nerdy friends, famous authors, librarians, wise old professors, writing teachers, and anyone else with something to say about the meaning of reading and novels, and maybe some clue on the destiny of this one-time genius. Perhaps he is still alive secretly writing great unpublished books in his drawer? The more elusive the author becomes, the deeper the filmmaker gets into the power of books to change our lives. This is a film about the love of reading, and the difficulty of making something worth reading. It’s quirky, vibrant, personal, and original. As a reader and devourer of books, I loved it.

– KK

Stone Reader
Mark Moskowitz
2002, 128 min.
$10, DVD, 2 discs

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Posted July 30, 2007 at 6:09 pm | comments
| in category Investigative


The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey


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A fantastic documentary tracing the earliest human migration on this planet, as shown by our genetic roots. This informative film, full of surprising news, is based on the work of Spencer Wells, who is both innovative scientist and enthusiastic host. He and crew scour the world for indigenous people with deep roots in one place, asking for samples of DNA to test, in order to piece together our “big family” genetic tree. In Indiania Jones mode, Wells tacks down common ancestors and comes up with some surprising candidates which he interviews. The best parts are when he returns with DNA results and we see the diverse ways in which people and tribes react to the news of what science says about their arrival and relations. View this as adventure travel or as a painless way to begin your genetic literacy.

– KK

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The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
With Spencer Wells
2003, 120 min.
$14, DVD

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Posted July 31, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments
| in category Investigative


Roger and Me


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More guerilla theater than a documentary, this is a road trip by trouble-maker Michael Moore as he chases down an unwanted interview with the remote head of General Motors. Moore resorts to a bag of tricks and subterfuge to dispense his political message on the way. The result is funny, infuriating, verbose, sly, arrogant and hilarious all at once. If you like to watch the little guy tweek the big guy, you’ll like this.

– KK

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Roger and Me
Directed by Michael Moore
1989, 90 min
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted May 11, 2006 at 11:02 pm | comments
| in category Investigative


Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room


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This was not what I expected. I thought it would be a predictable leftist documentary screed against the evils of capitalism as represented by the biggest corporate scam ever — Enron. Instead it was a very intelligent, subtle and fascinating protrait of the three principle leaders of Enron, and how their dream came back to kill them. It does a fabulous job of making the complexities of this intricate business case understandable, and the personalities behind the events real. And make no mistake. The disaster stems from the personalities. What I learned: Enron did deliver some great innovations, some of which will likely have to be invented again. But they also unleashed a company culture where competition and greed was paramount and not tempered by any other value, and in the end this unbridled greed ate them all up and destroyed the fortunes of many innocents. It’s a great film and should be shown in every business school.

– KK

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Directed by Alex Gibney
2006, 110 min.
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

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Posted April 3, 2006 at 6:34 pm | comments
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Sherman’s March


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This film is not about the civil war, nor Sherman’s March. It began with those, but the filmmaker quickly diverts his grant money to film his own autobiographical march through the south where he grew up. As he visits old girlfriends and finds new ones, his camera is running. He films himself painfully asking women why they won’t marry him, or in private to himself, why he won’t commit. This extremely internal journey sounds like a recipe for cinematic disaster and by every expectation this film should be a boring wreck. But it isn’t. The film is saved by the women he meets. Each southern belle he records is more fascinating than the last, each looming larger, each unforgettable in an almost Dickensian way. While the filmmaker hides his anxieties behind his camera, a strange beauty erupts out of the intensity and passion of his girl friends. There are more interesting strong women in this film than any film I’ve seen. Nothing else visibly happens in the film. If you stare hard enough at normal life it begins to wiggle, and in this film an introspective guy keeps staring until the ordinary become astounding. The film is sweet and funny and oddly endearing.

– KK

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Sherman's March
Directed by Ross McElwee
1986, 155 min.
$25, DVD

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Posted January 20, 2006 at 5:00 am | comments
| in category Investigative