Five Documentaries

FIve very different documentaries I’ve gathered together for five mini-reviews, each in one paragraph:

The Real Sleeping Beauty

A moving film about two women, one of whom woke from a coma after 23 days, while the other woke, against all expectations, after 20 years.  The film demonstrates how little medical sciece truly knows about the human mind, or its ability to recover from appalling traumas against the odds.  To be honest, both have had considerable difficulties, such that while they are the same people they are also very different people in persona and temperament to those who suffered respective car accidents that would have killed many outright.   It’s greatly to the credit of the film and its protagonists that the film is not swayed by any supposed religious justifications, but sticks rigidly to its humanity, the grief of loss, the loss of hope, the moment of redemption and the hard work as progress is made inch by inch.  Rating: 8/10


Sinatra To Be Frank

It’s the easiest thing in the world to wheel out endless footage of Old Blue Eyes, plus interviews with his buddies and splice them together into a biography with music.  It takes greater skill to transform a moderately compelling narrative from such familiar material into a piece with genuine insight.  Sorry to say, this is a comfortable whistlestop tour of Sinatra’s 82 years on earth, but never does it achieve anything exceptional, despite its fascinating subject matter.
Not that there is anything bad about this film, though there are several others against which it must compete.  I’d have liked to see a more revealing and challenging documentary.  Rating: 6/10

War Of The Worlds

A joyful documentary and re-enactment of that historic moment when Orson Welles shocked the American people beyond their senses.  The date was 30 October 1938, the day before Halloween and less than a year before WWII started.  Welles used the format of news broadcasts interrupting normal programmes to convince Joe Public that earth was being invaded by Mars, with the vanguard force landing in Grover’s Mill in New Jersey.  Folks believed it and deserted their homes from sheer panic, but then they’d had years of events nobody thought possible, including WWI and the Wall Street Crash – why not martians too?  Anything was possible!  Although slightly tongue-in-cheek, WotW successfully manoeuvres through dramatisations of audience reactions to the play, the subsequent controversy and the myth that was Welles.  Rating: 8/10

How To Stage A Coup

This is history by example but without huge detail.  It is, however, articulated in the words of some eminent academic historians, who lend weight and credence to a simple tale of how dictators used skill and circumstances to stage a coup in their native countries.  The autocrats in question include, inevitably, the usual suspects: Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherines I and II of Russia, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and Stalin.  The latter gets a special mention for how e fought off his rival Trotsky, but also how he achieved the most critical feat, for the film starts by explaining this conundrum: “It’s one thing to come to power; it’s another thing to stay there.”  This could easily have been a series, but for one 43-minute programme covers the essence of its subject matter proficiently and without sending the less academic viewers to sleep – aided by good visuals and a few saucy revelations.  Rating: 7/10

The Woman With No Face 

OK, I admit it – I wept like a baby watching this remarkable film about the surgery on a beautiful young wife and mother from South Africa, Tambu Makinzi, as a team of experts battled to save her life by removing two facial tumours and reconstructing her face, ravaged by the aggressive cancer. The surgeons in London worked pro bono but the family back home raised £30,000 for the successive operations, the longest of which lasted a staggering 25 hours. I defy anyone not to feel emotional while watching such a tale of tragedy, courage and skill, advancing the progress of human endeavour as it does.  Great, providing you can stand the bloody content of seeing a face removed with a big hole where the facial bones should be. Rating: 9/10

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