Tag Archives: History

Saving One Million Books from Destruction

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004

ISBN Price for hardcover $24.95 (at this writing, the highest price on Amazon is $9.89)

Outwitting History

Outwitting History — find it at Amazon!
Available in Hard Cover and Paperback

(5/5)

Pros: Well-written and includes a bibliography for those who are interested in reading some of the books and articles quoted

Cons: If I have to pick on something, I caught a few grammatical errors

When Aaron Lansky and a few fellow college students decided to learn Yiddish in order to understand modern Jewish History (since the 10th or 11th Century), he could not imagine that he would be dumpster diving or rubbing elbows with Woody Guthrie’s widow. Yet this and many other miraculously interwoven adventures became part of his odyssey into Yiddish literature.

I’ve known about Aaron Lansky’s National Yiddish Book Project – now known as the National Yiddish Book Center – for many years because of my activity with the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. When I started my own Yiddish Club in Nevada, I visited the National Yiddish Book Center’s website (yiddishbookcenter.org) and discovered a wealth of articles, blogs, and video interviews. My favorite section is a series of interviews with the late Leonard Nimoy, who was an actor in Yiddish Theater long before he was
Mr. Spock. The first clip begins with him reciting Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Yiddish – worth enjoying whether or not you understand Yiddish.

What I didn’t know was the whole story (in Yiddish, di ganse geshikhte) of Lansky’s search and rescue of Yiddish books, some dating back to the 1800s. This book takes the reader back to the very beginning when Lansky was a college student in search of Yiddish books to learn and practice reading. As I read the early chapters, I realized that Yiddish is not a dead language – yet. Unfortunately, Jewish immigrants, in an effort to be 100 percent American, i.e. assimilated, have been suffocating Yiddish for many years.

This reminds me of my childhood. I always felt that I was caught between generations. I spoke Yiddish almost as well as English. Most Jews of my generation remember their parents and grandparents using Yiddish to keep them from understanding the discussion. For me, it was a way of keeping the rest of the world from understanding the discussion. When I even came close to misbehaving in public, my mother would give me “the stare” and tell me in Yiddish to stop whatever it was I was doing or about to say.

These memories were the basis of understanding I had going into the reading of Outwitting History. My husband first borrowed the book from the library and told me that I would enjoy it. He began slipping bits and pieces, such as the Woody Guthrie story, because he just had to share. I didn’t quite get the need to share the stories because I was concerned that he would spoil it for me. Yet, that’s not at all what happened. When I started to read and could tell that an anecdote was one that my husband mentioned over dinner, I was even more interested.

Although Outwitting History isn’t a novel and we already know the ending, I still don’t want to take the chance of spoiling the middle. Learning how ultra-orthodox Jewish Scholars look upon Yiddish literature is an eye-opener, even for someone who is familiar with the various factions in the Chasidic community. The general feeling is that books in Yiddish are a distraction from studying Torah and Talmud (it encompasses more than just the Hebrew Bible; it includes the foundation of Jewish Law). Of course, once I read about it, I understood why they have a disdain for Yiddish books, even though I disagree with them.

Yiddish books include poetry, reference books, novels, and history books – everything necessary to learn about a society. This includes a world destroyed by the Holocaust and a world conceived by American life.

When Lansky relates the stories of finding the first batches of Yiddish books, what sticks with the reader is that each donor insisted on treating Lansky and crew as welcome guests. Elderly couples would cook feasts for them and package extra food “for the road.” Many of them were giving up their personal libraries because they were coming to the end of life and wanted to ensure that someone somewhere would read their books.

The one story I want to single out is the encounter with Woody Guthrie’s widow:

One day, Lansky received a letter from Marjorie Guthrie asking if he was interested in her family book collection. In addition to being the widow of Woody Guthrie, Marjorie was the daughter of a Yiddish poet and songwriter, Aliza Greenblatt. “Fort a Fisher,” one of Greenblatt’s songs is a favorite of mine. It tells of a young man watching a fisherman prepare to go out to sea and compares it to his own fishing expedition for someone to be his love. When the fisherman comes back in the evening with empty nets, he feels his own loneliness that much more deeply.

Lansky was familiar with all of Greenblatt’s work and couldn’t imagine that there was such a close connection between her and Woody Guthrie. To quote:

“Amazing. Could it be that the daughter of ‘Fort a fisher’ was also the wife of ‘This Land is Your Land’ – and, come to think of it, the mother of ‘Alice’s Restaurant?’ ”

As Lanky spends more time with Marjorie, she tells him about Arlo and Nora who had a visiting tutor for Jewish studies because Woody (who was not Jewish) and Marjorie wanted their children to have a Jewish education. I won’t ruin the surprise identity of the tutor.

Although this is a very Jewish book, Lansky explains a lot of inside information so that everyone can understand the significance of each adventure. Because of that, I believe that Outwitting History is for anyone who loves books and has an interest in the development and rescuing of a language and culture. This was the best nonfiction read I’ve had in a very long time!

An Imperfect but Captivating Look at the Final Days of WWII: JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY

JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY

Japan’s Longest Day on Amazon

(4/5)

Pros:  Fascinating from a historical perspective; strong acting and directorial style

Cons: Introduces literally hundreds of characters, making it difficult to follow the unfolding storyline

Released to mark the 35th anniversary of the famed Toho Studios, 1967’s Japan’s Longest Day (a.k.a. Nihon no ichiban nagai hi) details the events from late July 1945 until the official Japanese surrender on August 15 of that year. The story begins just before the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, as Japanese bureaucrats argue about whether they should agree to the demands of the Pottsdam Declaration, which laid out conditions for an unconditional surrender. The deployment of “the bomb” has little effect on the tone of these arguments, but while the politicians continue to bicker over wording in the Declaration which suggests Japan would be “subject to” the command of the Allies, Nagasaki is destroyed, prompting Japanese Emperor Hirohito to step in and declare that he wants to end the war as quickly as possible. Many Japanese find unconditional surrender to be an unacceptable, dishonorable way to exit the war – the Declaration establishes Japan as a “subordinate” nation, and most of the country’s military leaders prefer to fight to the last man – a situation which would likely lead to an incredibly costly American and Soviet invasion of the home islands. Disagreeing with the Emperor however is simply not an option, so even the most reluctant of the military leaders finally accepts the Allies’s terms.

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All of the above action, presented in an almost documentary-like manner replete with actual wartime footage and a narrator who explains and provides context to the events, takes place in the first twenty or so minutes of this 167-minute film – the opening titles only show up around the twenty-one minute mark. This might seem strange since it would appear that the main conflict in the story has been resolved with Hirohito’s explanation that he wants his military leadership to agree to surrender. In truth, writer Shinobu Hashimoto’s script (from a story by Soichi Oya) is just getting started, since it’s at this point that Japan’s Longest Day truly gets into its groove, presenting an incredibly detailed, chronological timeline of the events of August 14th and 15th, 1945. As Hirohito records a speech to be broadcast over the radio, telling his nation that he has agreed to surrender, a group of lower-ranking military men and a rogue civilian military battalion choose to march in anger against the Prime Minister and the Emperor himself. It’s the LP recording of the surrender address itself that the rebelling military men are most interested in capturing since they can effectively prolong the war by ensuring that the speech isn’t broadcast.

220px-Hirohito_in_dress_uniformInterestingly, though Emperor Hirohito (pictured here) figures prominently in the film, the audience never sees his face and he exists as an almost mystical figure.

Given the lengthy running time, it might not be surprising that Japan’s Longest Day is very talky – particularly during its first half. There’s precious little of what most viewers would consider action during this opening section, which presents a very dramatic portrait of a proud nation in severe pain as it comes to terms with its first major military defeat. Though the prolonged dialogue scenes only reinforce my belief that the film would have a limited audience, with those interested in Japanese history or World War II perhaps having the most to gain by watching it, these moments are nonetheless fascinating to watch from an American perspective. Until very recently, there’s been almost no effort made to present the “other side” of the World War II story: the war is often (still) viewed as an “US versus them” affair, with the Japanese clearly being the “bad guys.” Japan’s Longest Day obviously shows a much different side of the war, but also is rather eye-opening since it shows happens when an ultra-nationalistic country is put in its place so to speak after an extended, far-reaching conflict. One can only imagine what would happen in the United States should it face a similar situation.

japans-longest-dayThough it’s long and slow-going at first, the film gets plenty tense down the stretch.

Around the halfway point, just as a narrator explains that only half of Japan’s longest day had elapsed, the film makes a sudden turn into more action-oriented territory. Following a moment pulled straight out of ultra-violent samurai cinema, momentum in the film slowly starts to build and dramatic tension gradually increases, reaching a literal fever pitch by the conclusion. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this abrupt shift in mood: while captivating in its own way, Japan’s Longest Day seemed all-too willing to simply continue on with its dialogue-heavy presentation. The violent action that eventually turns up is made all the more thrilling simply due to the fact that a viewer who stuck with it had probably grown accustomed to the film’s (up to that point) languishing pace.

002be1c1_mediumOutstanding shot composition is one of the best things about the movie.

Director Kihachi Okamoto (who was primarily known before this film for samurai pictures such as Samurai Assassin, Sword of Doom, and Kill!) does a masterful job of juggling concurrent events . Often, footage showing the most mundane of tasks (discussions about the exact wording of the surrender address that the Emperor will deliver, for instance ) are juxtaposed against scenes of violent struggle taking place in other locations at the same time. The editing work here is really slick, obviously designed for maximum impact, and I especially appreciated the varied choice of camera angles and perspectives as well as the framing in those shots. Directing cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, Okamoto is able to create numerous striking moments: all the hyper-violent scenes are quite shocking in the way they’re related to the camera, but the way Okamoto is able to express the feelings of his characters without dialogue is equally impressive. The film frequently alternates between tight close-ups showing the pained expressions on the actors’s faces and long shots which establish the ways in which their characters are drifting apart ideologically, and I especially liked a scene in which the grief-stricken Emperor is shown clutching a handkerchief in his hand in the foreground while the bitter Minister of War sits stoically in the background.

hJmUr4Jkb8v8Fq5rsUWpStJ3vYdA statue-like Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese War Minister.

Consistent with American-made war epics like The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, or Tora! Tora! Tora! to name but a few, Japan’s Longest Day is an all-star film if there ever was one. Virtually every actor I’ve ever seen in a Toho sci-fi flick (of which the Godzilla films are the most well known) shows up here, and it was a treat for me to see what they could do with quality material.  That being said, it’s Toshiro Mifune, never a player in a Toho monster mash, who appears as the obvious main character, playing Minister of War, General Korechika Anami. Mifune says more with just his eyes than many actors could in pages of dialogue, but later in the film, he also handles a moving speech about how the young people in Japan have to carry on after the war, working to improve the nation. His final scene in the picture is absolutely stunning, complimented by one of Okamoto’s best directorial flourishes. In a smaller role, Takashi Shimura is his usual, stately self playing Information Bureau Director Hiroshi Shimomura, but it’s Toshio Kurosawa who arguably turns in the most genuinely memorable performance, playing a major who decides to take matters into his own hands in an effort to prolong the war and achieve a “glorious” final battle. Generally, I found the acting in this film to be very strong and full of an appropriate level of both anguish and fervor.

japan-s-longest-day-1967-re-10Many regulars from Toho’s sci-fi flicks turn up here, and do a surprisingly good job tackling more dramatic and serious material.

Finishing up with a batch of hard-hitting and absolutely astounding stats (some 3,000,000 wartime casualties) and a cautionary statement about how Japan must never experience another 24 hours like the one depicted in the film, Japan’s Longest Day wound up being quite a different film than I would have expected. In all honesty, many American viewers would have no interest in watching this black-and-white, subtitled foreign film in the first place, but the fact that so many characters (identified through use of onscreen text) are thrown at the viewer makes it very difficult to keep track of the ongoing action. At a certain point, I fully expected this to be a sort of endurance test to watch, with strong acting but little action; imagine my surprise then when director Okamoto made sure it went off with a bang during its back half. Confusing though the narrative may be, the observant non-Japanese viewer gets enough of the gist of what’s happening to follow the unfolding events, and in terms of its historical value, I’d have to call this picture important. It definitely provides insight into a time and place that’s not-often (if ever) discussed in America, and I would certainly recommend this challenging but entirely worthwhile film to patient viewers willing to stick with it.

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blood & guts
5/10 : Just when you think this movie’s going to be all talk, it lets loose with some blood-spurting violence.

smack talk
0/10 : No profanity, lots of hard-hitting dialogue.

fap factor
0/10 : Nada.
whack attack
3/10 : Will undoubtedly impress history buffs, but many will be turned off by an incredibly talky first half and a story that’s difficult to get a handle on.
GI JOE
“You’re still thinking in terms of success or failure…will it preserve our nation or destroy it?”

PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS

See it at the PBS website 

(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering

Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary

From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.

While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.

Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.

 

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety at the PBS website.

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage

Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.

Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

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When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.

 

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB – EXCERPT from Seth Skundrick on Vimeo.

Well-Made but Unexceptional Document of the LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

See it at Amazon 

(3.5/5)

Pros: Comprehensive and factual, with a nice selection of archival film footage

Cons: Quite dry – it plays like a television documentary, not a feature film

Telling the story of the events of April 1975, which saw thousands of American military personnel – and many more thousands of South Vietnamese citizens – trying to scramble out of the country as the communist military closed in on Saigon, the 2014 documentary Last Days in Vietnam is a competent but somewhat uninspired production. Appropriately enough, the film was picked up for distribution by PBS’s American Experience Films, but I found that this program existed in the same realm as 2005’s March of the Penguins. Like that film, Last Days is comprehensive with regard to its subject and perfectly fine to watch, painting a detailed portrait of a rather unfortunate period in American and world history. That said, it’s virtually the same sort of thing that plays on PBS on any given evening, neither better nor worse than the typical television documentary. I guess I just wasn’t impressed enough by Last Days to feel that either an Oscar Nomination or an elevated level of attention was really warranted: it just really didn’t strike me as being all that special.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM - 2014 FILM STILL - A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees on an Air America helicopter the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half--milefrom the U.S. Embassy. April 29, 1975 - Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis/ Drafthouse Cinema

The program begins with a crash course examination of the latter stages of American involvement in Vietnam. By 1973, with public opinion firmly against any further action in Southeast Asia, American president Richard Nixon announced that a cease-fire agreement had been signed in Paris, allowing for the vast US military force in the region to start exiting the combat theater. A year later, Nixon left office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and in late 1974, the North Vietnamese leadership tested the ever-waning resolve of the United States by initiating a full-scale invasion of the South. As they likely anticipated, American leadership (namely, new president Gerald Ford) mostly sat by as communist forces tore through the country, virtually obliterating the under-equipped and increasingly desperate South Vietnamese army. By April 1975, all seemed lost in Vietnam, and despite American ambassador Graham Martin’s reluctance to accept the hopelessness of the situation, evacuation plans were being put in place and carried out – with or without official clearance.

Last_Days_in_Vietnam_2Directed by Rory Kennedy(daughter of the late Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy), Last Days in Vietnam is told mostly from the mouths of various people who were in the midst of this evacuation process. First priority was to get any and every American out of the country, but there also was a heroic attempt made to rescue as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible. Many of these Vietnamese had worked with the Americans during previous combat operations and were likely to be executed or imprisoned if they were captured by the communists. Several concurrent stories are told during the documentary: some of the interview subjects reveal the situation in and around the American embassy in Saigon (which became an absolute mob of people trying to flee the country), while other interviewees explain an operation to take several boatloads of personnel from an outpost in Can Tho downriver to the South China Sea or discuss what was happening on board the vessels offshore which had to accept an absolute deluge of refugees. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reveals what was going on in the mind of the President and his staff. The cuts to black which mark the transition between these various stories are somewhat awkward, but listening to the first-hand recollections of the events makes the picture more poignant – especially when it comes time for the last helicopter to leave the embassy despite the fact that some 400-plus individuals were still awaiting rescue.

148873_origAccompanying the interviews is a truly remarkable collection of archival footage which captures most every major event mentioned. Many of the images associated with the fall of Saigon have become iconic: helicopters picking up passengers lined up on rooftops, choppers being pushed into the sea to make way for more refugees on the nearby ships, crowds of people scrambling to vault the fence or storm the gates of the American embassy. Indeed, it’s the stories relating to these images that get the most screen time during the film, but I was more impressed by the material which documented the other, less widely-known events taking place during the evacuation (especially noteworthy are audio tapes made during 1975 by a sailor stationed just off the Vietnamese coast). Edited together exceptionally well, the program makes use of appropriately somber and often quite dramatic music by Gary Lionell as well as computer graphics which identify and establish the various locations discussed. These rudimentary animated sequences aren’t flashy, but they nevertheless do a fine job of allowing the viewer to get a sense of what the ongoing operations involved in terms of logistics and strategy.

maxresdefaultHonestly, there’s nothing especially wrong with Last Days in Vietnam, but it may not be the production that some viewers might be expecting. Though its title seems to suggest a more far-reaching examination of the end of the Vietnam War, Last Days actually focuses almost singularly on the evacuation process. There’s very limited commentary about the Vietnam War as a whole; I actually found that Kennedy’s documentary almost assumes the viewer has some working knowledge about the conflict going in, and a viewer is unlikely to gain much far-reaching understanding about this conflict based solely on this particular film. Maybe I’m just too used to documentary filmmakers getting on their soapbox anymore, but I was a bit surprised that Kennedy didn’t take the chance to point out the extremely obvious parallels between the war in Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. This sort of commentary may have stretched the boundaries of what a PBS documentary was expected to do, but I think some provocative content would have been beneficial in a film that walked the straight and narrow almost to a fault.

p02wr6d3In some ways, it’s to the film’s credit that Last Days in Vietnam does stay so focused on the task at hand and keep its eye on the prize.  Still, this documentary seemed a bit dry to me – certainly, it covers its subject quite well, but the film’s payoff seemed rather meager since there wasn’t a big message or obvious point that revealed itself in its final moments. Additionally, the lack of much directorial flair or pizazz made this play like a typical made-for-TV piece and it didn’t at all strike me as something entirely worthy of a theatrical release. If anything, I might say that Kennedy’s film is noticeably plain and entirely ordinary, a film that’s watchable because of the compelling stories being told by its interview subjects, not because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. Without doubt, Last Days in Vietnam is a well-made, informative, and interesting documentary, but it won’t hold much appeal to those not already interested in the subject. Though it’s worthwhile, I’d give it only a moderate recommendation.

la-et-turan-last-days-in-vietnam-20140918

blood & guts

3/10 : Isolated glimpses of combat violence and related fatalities, though not overly graphic

smack talk

2/10: A couple instances of minor profanity.

fap factor

0/10: Nada

whack attack

2/10: A straight-forward, PBS-style documentary.

GI JOE

“The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm.  Promises made in good faith; promises broken.  People being hurt because we didn’t get our act together.  The whole Vietnam War is a story that kinda sounds like that…”

“It’s All So Surreal…” THE 2000s: A NEW REALITY

THE 2000s: A NEW REALITY

on National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channel 

(3/5)

Pros: Nice selection of interview subjects and fantastic archival footage

Cons: Depressing! and doesn’t do much to explain what I would consider the bigger picture issues going on

The latest in a string of National Geographic miniseries devoted to an exploration of the past several decades (after The 80s: The Decade that Made Us and The 90s: The Last Great Decade), 2015’s two-part The 2000s: A New Reality, as its title suggests, focuses its attention on the period from 2000 until 2009. Examining both major news events and pop culture stories and covering a wide range of material, the program (narrated by actor Rob Lowe) features a ton of archival footage, with a variety of interview subjects, including many people actually involved commenting on and trying to make sense of these events. As might be expected, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are the thing which shapes virtually everything else covered, and the program does a fine job of establishing how much the world changed almost instantaneously as a result of these attacks. Since the series has to cram ten years of time into roughly four hours of television however, it doesn’t linger on this decade-defining event for long, pushing forward instead to cover as much as possible within the time constraints.

 350Pretty much.

The 2000s starts out with a segment focusing on the tumultuous and incredibly controversial 2000 election in which a recount was ordered…then abandoned. From here, much of the program details the “war on terror,” from actions in Afghanistan to the (ongoing) war in Iraq, with significant attention paid to the hunt for and capture of Saddam Hussein. Along with coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the DC sniper and even the struggle to decide the fate of young Elian Gonzalez, it seems an equal amount of time is devoted to popular culture and technological innovation. Admittedly, there was a lot of crazy stuff happening during this decade, one in which such innovations as Ipods, Iphones, Youtube, and reality television (wait…is that an “innovation?”) came into being, but it struck me as a little sad and maybe even distressing that Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” made it into a documentary proposing to cover the biggest events of a ten year period. I’ve often been critical of the American media covering seemingly insignificant stories to gloss over issues that people really should be concerned about, and the whole “Nipplegate” affair is about as glaring a case of that as ever has existed.

the-2000s-janet-justin-super-bowlReal news right here folks.

Much as the choice of events being covered in this documentary sometimes seemed strange, I was more struck by the discrepancy in the amount of screen time devoted to one story versus another and how certain events were portrayed. The 2000s: A New Reality is presented almost exclusively from an American point of view, virtually ignoring any events happening in other sections of the globe – save those related to the war(s) in the Middle East. This is problematic in its own right (though it fits right in with how the American media works in general), but it’s also discouraging that several major events are downplayed in favor of segments dealing with celebrities and pop culture. For instance, I found that the segment dealing with the financial crisis of 2007-8 was told in a very protracted manner that didn’t really get into the meat and potatoes of the story. Despite this being a serious event with major global ramifications, the television show The Osbournes got about the same amount of screen time – if not more.

reality_tv_collage…and humanity collectively got a whole lot dumber.

In my review of The 90s: The Last Great Decade, I was somewhat critical of the title of the program: how could National Geographic justify that label? Were they trying to say that the “good times” were over – possibly for good? Having now seen The 2000s: A New Reality, everything makes sense, since an examination of the 2000s is downright depressing. It struck me that most every item covered in this documentary either fell into the category of bad news or was an example of what I might label as human stupidity in action. The 2000s ends with a segment covering the “miracle landing on the Hudson,” which actually is pretty nifty in taking the decade full circle back to planes being used as weapons during 9/11. Still, this glimpse of hope pops up way too late in the going to change my mind about how positively dreadful the 2000s really were, especially in terms of how they’re represented in this documentary – A New Reality is almost surreal in how downbeat is plays for much of its duration.

NTTS13900OK – so there were a few moments of hope during the decade….

Perhaps the most alarming thing about The 2000s: A New Reality is that there’s very little honest discussion about how humankind should have learned from the mistakes covered in not only this documentary, but also those covering the ‘80s and ‘90s. Virtually no attempt has been made to really link events together despite the fact that many of the problems that arose during the 2000s had their roots in things that occurred previously. As Albert Einstein is quoting as saying “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – undoubtedly, the world has changed substantially since the turn of the millennium, but it seems like humans are repeating many of the same actions that have caused problems in the past. If we’re to judge by this documentary, things look gloomy, but the human race does have the power to change the way it does things…if only we look beyond the mundane to see the big picture.

NTTS13899…but this New Reality seems to be one overwhelmed by tragedy, turmoil,  and despair.

Arguably one of the more important changes covered in the documentary was the way that increased global connectivity has affected not only the manner in which news is obtained by the public, but also the manner in which that news is presented. The proliferation of camera phones has prompted the rise of “citizen journalism,” ensuring that news can literally break in real time as it happens. While this is a good thing in many ways, it also has a tendency (in my opinion) to lead to knee-jerk responses from authorities and those in positions of power. Perhaps because The 2000s was fairly dark to begin with, the program doesn’t really examine the consequences of this new school of information and news gathering, and maybe it’s not the program’s responsibility to do so. I guess my point is that I would have liked if the program encouraged more discussion and thought instead of just regurgitating information and possibly inciting a nostalgic response from the viewer. My criteria for this program would most certainly be different than the average television viewer who’s just trying to be entertained.

29906170001_4330507977001_4330455167001-vsIt’s a good thing the program sprinkles some humor into the proceedings – I don’t know if this parade of unfortunate events would be tolerable otherwise.

In the end, I suppose The 2000s: A New Reality does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It does cover most of the big events of the decade and many of the far-reaching paradigm shifts,  attempting to (superficially at least) explain the basic facts relating to them. The program is put together extremely well, with a soundtrack full of iconic music hits from the decade.  Occasional comedic elements thrown in to contrast the more distressing elements are most welcome, and I’m not sure that anyone would want to watch this program if humor wasn’t present in some form.  As a time-waster, this program would be ideal; with its moderate (if unchallenging) educational content, it certainly has much more to offer a viewer than the typical, mindless television program. I’m not going to call it outstanding, but it’s worth checking out if you get a chance.

]

Time.Dec.09.Cover_-225x300

Undeniably Dry but Informative Exploration of FORBIDDEN HISTORY

FORBIDDEN HISTORY

on American Heroes Channel

The Show’s Website or American Heroes Channel Website

(3/5) decent

Pros: Choice of topics; straight-forward presentation

Cons: Seems dry when compared to most similar programs

Premiering on British television in 2013 and picked up for broadcast on the (ahem) American Heroes Channel in the years since, documentary series Forbidden History follows the adventures and investigations of journalist Jamie Theakston as he tries to unravel various stories and facts that have been omitted from the history books. The typical, hour-long episode of Forbidden History features the usual assortment of reenactments, interviews, historical accounts, artistic renderings and photographs to present a comprehensive portrait of the topics being examined. Once a basic framework has been established, the program shifts to cover Theakston as he travels to various locations in search of clues and hard evidence. A second season of the program on AHC channel began in late May with an episode dealing with the Oracles of the Dead which existed in the ancient Greek and Roman empires. After Theakston travels to the Baia Archaeological Park and Grotto of the Sibyl near Naples, Italy and the more well-known Oracle of Delphi, the show attempts to discern whether or not these mythical sites offered an honest enlightening experience or were more a smoke and mirrors display designed to relieve attendees of their money.

xogelukkiallwtokqc7nTheakston outside the “treasure chamber” of Petra.

The synopsis of this program should sound very familiar to viewers of America Unearthed or even Destination Unknown, but Forbidden History seems somewhat more generalized, covering more far-reaching topics and is actually formatted more like a standard documentary rather than a stylized – and more obviously entertainment-oriented – reality show. Additionally, while America Unearthed host Scott Wolter and Destination Unknown’s Josh Gates are presented as dashing, semi-heroic figures that are clearly the focal points of their respective shows, Theakston seems somewhat more timid and doesn’t quite come across as the main character of Forbidden History. It’s true that the investigations covered in the show do revolve around him, but Theakston actually falls by the wayside when it comes time for the program to draw conclusions on its topics. This approach ultimately ensures that Forbidden History seems level-headed and fairly credible, at least partially because it doesn’t linger on the same sorts of obvious conspiracy theories that Wolter seems to get off on.

FHs2_grail_LAS_WEB_3_0Eyeing a possible Holy Grail.

The meat and potatoes format of Forbidden History does have a bit of a downside however: this show seems quite dry compared to other vaguely similar programs, a 60 Minutes of sorts compared to other programs’ would-be Indiana Jones. Theakston doesn’t remotely have the charisma of, say, a Josh Gates, and his “just the facts, ma’am” attitude means that it’s really no wonder that the show doesn’t entirely focus just on his rather humorless exploits. I’ve also got to say that the assemblage of interview subjects featured in this program is somewhat sketchy: regardless of the subject of any individual episode, the same crew of folks (including conspiracy nut and History Channel regular Alan Butler) throw in their two cents, giving the program a some alarming similarities to the increasingly suspect docu-fiction that is Ancient Aliens. I should point out that to its credit, Forbidden History makes every attempt to distinguish between actual, provable fact and outright speculation, thus it seems substantially more honest in its conclusions than anything proposed by the Ancient Aliens crew.

3a3a9ce91feed1384ac338901716d066You mean to tell me that Theakston doesn’t just buy everything he’s told by the people he’s interviewed?

Generally speaking, Forbidden History is put together nicely, with camerawork that places a viewer in the midst of the action and editing that keeps things moving. Subtle music cues are applied to create mood when appropriate, and the third-party narration has a tendency to offer a viewer questions and cues that promote more serious thought about the topics. Easily the best thing about this program is the range of genuinely fascinating subjects that have been covered. Episodes of this program have dealt with Nikola Tesla, the Nazi UFO project, lost treasures of Petra, Templar conspiracies, the bloodline of Christ and the mystery of the Holy Grail, the existence of giants, and even the Vatican’s cover-up of the Fatima prophecies – Forbidden History certainly covers the bases and offers up a bit of everything. Considering that many similar programs stick to a fairly predictable batch of possible topics, the undeniably eclectic scope of this show is refreshing.

hollowearthgiant1

Amazing how this show manages to tie in with various others on History Channel and beyond…

To be completely honest, Forbidden History isn’t the greatest thing on television these days, but it’s not the worst that’s out there either. This program offers a viewer exactly what would be expected from a documentary series and nothing more, but it covers some intriguing subjects and keeps things focused on actual facts. That alone is noteworthy in an era when speculative programming and outright fabrications run rampant across the television dial. Those interested in esoteric information will probably find this show worthwhile, but those used to more flashy productions may find it dull. I’d give it a moderate recommendation.

Search for the Holy Blood Line:

Uninspired by a True Story! THE WHALE: REVENGE FROM THE DEEP

THE WHALE: REVENGE FROM THE DEEP on Animal Planet

Animal Planet Website 

(2/5)meh

Pros: First half isn’t bad; nice sense of what whaling was like; interesting original story

Cons: The film as a whole is woefully uninspired – particularly during a deadly second half

A British-American co-production based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, the 2014 made-for-cable production The Whale: Revenge from the Deep (also known simply as Revenge of the Whale) tells the tale of the Nantucket-based whaling ship Essex, which sank in the Pacific Ocean after being rammed by a sperm whale. Obviously influenced heavily by the classic 1956 filmed version of Melville’s novel, director Alrick Riley, working from a script by Terry Cafolla, initially sets the picture up as a rousing tale of adventure on the high seas, introducing us to a “greenhorn” sailor named Thomas Nickerson who signs up as the cabin boy on board the Essex in 1820. Captained by George Pollard, Jr. who draws the ire of some of his crew due to his inexperience at the helm, the vessel sets sail for the Pacific in search of large whale pods. Upon finding and harvesting several of the creatures, the once-mutinous crew is momentarily pacified, but disaster strikes when one whale charges the ship, sending it to the bottom in a matter of minutes. Now the remaining crew, clinging to life in a trio of small and rickety whaleboats (which are essentially, glorified rowboats), try and survive as their supplies run dangerously low – and their morale starts to disintegrate.

A few action sequences
A handful of action sequences exist early on – but they’re sorely needed during the film’s painfully dull second half.

Premiering on the Animal Planet channel in late 2014, The Whale has numerous elements both good and bad. On the plus side, the production as a whole looks marvelous. A viewer really gets a nice sense through the first half of the film of what it was like to be a sailor during the golden age of whaling. Cafolla’s script represents everyday life on board a whaling vessel well enough and the photography effectively captures both the freedom of the open sea and the grimy conditions on the lower decks on the ship. While the film doesn’t show any whales actually being killed, in detailing the grisly process of harvesting the creatures, it very nearly plays like a horror flick for brief periods: flesh is sliced up, guts are thrown around, and blood rains down on crew members, presumably from the blowholes of dying marine mammals. Though this gore might turn off some viewers, the film is actually quite restrained compared to how gruesome it could have been. Acting here is fairly decent if unexceptional: Charles Furness stars as young Nickerson, Jonas Armstrong as the wily first mate Owen Chase, and Adam Rayner as Captain Pollard, who eventually starts to realize he’s in way over his head. Honestly, I was more impressed by the supporting players who, in portraying a rather colorful group of peripheral characters, add significant authenticity to the proceedings.

ah yes
As might be expected from a TV movie, there’s some racial commentary thrown in for added poignancy.

The most glaring problem for me was the script, which played out in a manner that was all-too-familiar to anyone who’s seen a sailing/pirate movie or three and had way, way too much “padding.” As might be expected, there’s a “journey into manhood” aspect to the story since Nickerson literally grows up on board the Essex, but even more than this, writer Cafolla inserts minimal imagination into the mix: he may as well have gone down a checklist of cliché elements to include here in one shape or form. Considering the film’s title and its marketing, it’s odd that so much of the story revolves not around more action-oriented sequences or even the whales themselves, but instead around the predictable power struggle between first mate Chase and Captain Pollard. The sequence in which the boat is sunk – a moment that could have been a legitimate highlight – is so poorly executed that it comes across as an almost incidental, “blink and you miss it” event.

real dangers
Bearing in mind the very real dangers associated with whaling (to say nothing of the fascinating factual basis), I might have expected this film to be more exciting – or at the very least, capable of holding a viewer’s attention.  Sadly, it’s not the case.

Following the actual sinking, any kind of momentum or energy in the film swiftly vanishes. We’re left with a familiar and painfully dull tale of survival against all odds. Since we’re sure from the start that at least the main character survives (the story presented in the film is, as was the case in Moby Dick, told in hindsight from the perspective of an older incarnation of Nickerson, played by Martin “I’m here for the paycheck” Sheen), at least some of the underlying tension in the piece is nullified. In films like the newer Star Wars entries, even though most viewers would know that Obi-Wan Kenobi survived the predicaments he was getting himself into, the story was strong enough to sustain viewer interest, but in the case of The Whale, finding out how Nickerson survives this ordeal is tedious and largely pointless. Director Riley seems to have no clue how to get some wind back in the sails, and even the touches of style he demonstrated during film’s first half are nowhere to be found down the line. As if this isn’t bad enough, at a certain point, it seems as though the director had reached his contractually-stipulated time requirement and things are finished up quickly in a tidy, none-too-satisfying manner.

...and don't you forget it!
…and don’t you forget it!

Ultimately, even if The Whale: Revenge from the Deep has some good elements and moments (for instance, an underwater ballet of sorts between Nickerson and a computer-generated whale is pretty cool, and the music score by Debbie Wiseman and Richard Fiocca nicely establishes mood), there are simply too many missteps made by the director and writer for it to seem like a worthwhile expenditure of time. Instead of a thrilling sea adventure, a viewer is treated to an exhausting and lifeless survival drama. “Ominous” shots of whales gliding through the sea which pop up during the film’s second half appear to have been thrown in as a corny afterthought, hinting at the lack of creativity and inspiration which went into the production and don’t so much seem threatening as remind a viewer of what he probably would have wanted from the film in the first place. This may have worked as a hour-long made-for-TV program, but as a two-hour feature, it’s disappointing. Viewers would be much better off re-watching (or – imagine this – reading) Moby Dick than trying to slog through this: I’d skip it.

if only...
If only…if only…

disc deets
Not available on home video to the best of my knowledge.

blood & guts
3/10 : Shows the gruesome reality of whaling seen in brief snippets and also features implied cannibalism

smack talk
3/10 : No outright profanity, but plenty of rough language from a colorful bunch of sailors

fap factorhi ho!

0/10 : This is perhaps the most chaste band of seadogs ever.

whack attack
2/10 : The basic story of the Essex is compelling. This film is not.

GI JOE
“There is a darkness blacker than the blackest night. Blacker than greed even. When it bites, it eats you alive. It wasn’t the sea or the elements – it was ourselves.”

Where in the World is Josh Gates? EXPEDITION UNKNOWN

EXPEDITION UNKNOWN on Travel Channel

See it at The Travel Channel Website 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: Entertaining and enjoyable, with some educational value tossed in for good measure

Cons: SURPRISE! The show doesn’t conclusively prove anything

Premiering in 2007 and running for a full five seasons, Syfy Channel’s Destination Truth can now be regarded as one of the best paranormal (and more specifically monster hunt) series ever produced. Centering on archaeologist/explorer/adventurer Josh Gates and his quest to identify mythical cryptids (i.e. unknown creatures) and uncover strange phenomena in various locations around the world, the show was part travelogue, part speculative documentary with its best trait being that it didn’t bullshit its audience. If Gates and his revolving crew of companions didn’t find anything, they didn’t try and convince the viewer they did. Regardless of whether anything unusual was encountered on the average Destination Truth episode however, the program was consistently entertaining…and not nearly as moronic as the current wave of monster-related cable programming. Hell, you’d think DT was made for intellectuals when comparing it to the likes of Alaska Monsters, which serve up the lowest common denominator of entertainment.

Gates in Peru
Gates in Machu Picchu – there certainly plenty of subject matter for this new series.

In 2014, Gates confirmed that Destination Truth had in fact run its course after a couple year hiatus, but this wasn’t the end of the line for Gates in the genre of the speculative documentary. I have to admit I was pretty stoked when I heard that Travel Channel had ordered a new series in which Gates would investigate various “iconic mysteries” (whatever that means) – the new show was entitled Expedition Unknown and debuted in early January 2015, with its first two-hour episode dealing with the search for clues in the disappearance of famed aviator Amelia Earhart (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic). Arguably one of the most widely-known and enigmatic missing persons cases in the world, the Earhart disappearance has captivated the public for more than seventy years: while attempting to fly around the world on an equatorial route in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished while flying from Papua New Guinea to small Howland Island in the Pacific. Despite a massive Naval search, no trace of Earhart, Noonan, or the plane has ever been conclusively found, leading to not only to endless speculation about her ultimate fate but also to numerous, sometimes outlandish conspiracy theories.

Earhart
New evidence may solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Or not…

Inspired by some “new” evidence, the debut episode of Expedition Unknown follows Gates on a journey to various Pacific locales in search of what may have been Earhart’s final resting place. As mentioned, many theories exist about where Earhart’s plane may have gone down – all of which assume that the official story that the plane was ditched and sank in the ocean near Howland Island was somehow false. In any case, Gates begins by investigating a theory stating that Earhart somehow circled back to Papua New Guinea and follows up on reports of plane wreckage in the remote jungles of the island nation. Despite the fact that stumbling on these crash sites would be akin to locating a needle in a haystack, Gates actually does find a downed plane – though it turns out to be a Japanese craft likely lost during the second World War. Continuing on, Gates scans the ocean bottom off the coast of the island of New Britain in search of other crash sites, locating additional WWII wrecks including one that appears to still have the bodies of its pilots strapped in the cockpit. The second major theory investigated in the episode examines the notion that Earhart and Noonan actually made it to uninhabited Nikumaroro island, where unknown human remains were discovered in the ‘40s and subsequently taken to Fiji for analysis. Attempting to locate these skeletal remains in Fiji, Gates is eventually led to the crawlspace under a house where he discovers human bone fragments…

random bone fragments
Random bone fragments under random house in Fiji…wait a minute…THEY MUST BE AMELIA EARHART’S!

Like Gates’ previous program, Expedition Unknown stands as a cross between a travel video that’s filmed in exotic and quite breathtaking locations and a speculative documentary centered around increasingly eyebrow-raising theories. Clearly, Gates and his production team have the basic formula for this show down pat: though the production seems somewhat more modest than what was featured in the typical episode of Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown is more polished and focused, at least in this initial episode. I rather liked the moments in which glimpses of the local cultures of Papua New Guinea and Fiji were seen as Gates continues his investigation; these sequences arguably provide the most memorable moments from the episode including one where a small but powerful earthquake strikes while Gates is conducting an interview with a native chief. Even if the moments in which Gates has to conduct some sort of “welcoming ritual” to be accepted by various local peoples seem quite cliché and, honestly, ridiculous, it’s neat to be able to see how life operates in these remote corners of the globe nonetheless. Photography throughout the program is pretty outstanding and looks professional – especially compared to the shakycam overload that the majority of the reality/monster hunt shows on cable nowadays rely on. The producers and editors do a fine job of capturing the look and feel of the places Gates travels to, and I was particularly awed by images of the (smoldering) volcanoes which exist in the area around New Britain (an island in Papua New Guinea).

places I'd rather be
Places I’d rather be: this show features many of them.

As was the case in Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown goes out of its way to not only hold a viewer’s interest, but also to keep him entertained. There’s plenty of humor present in the program – most of which comes from the quick-witted commentary of Gates himself. Perpetually good-natured with a never-ending enthusiasm, Gates is the ideal host for a program like this, ensuring a viewer remains captivated throughout since he puts forth a nice balance of more light-hearted, comical material and cold, hard facts. One could easily point out that nothing overly dramatic or mind-blowing happens during the course of this initial episode, and I don’t think I’m spoiling the show by saying that Gates doesn’t conclusively prove anything relating to Earhart’s disappearance. Nevertheless, the editing of the program generates a nice sense of forward momentum while emphasizing a few minor cliffhangers (which conveniently appear right before commercial breaks).

culture
What would a globe-trotting documentary be without the obligatory “I must become one of the tribe” sequence?



On the downside, those looking for a more straight-forward, “lets stick to the facts” program will likely be less-than enthused about the format of this show. Clearly, this show is more entertainment than education, though it’s excellent as a combination of these two things – a viewer does get a crash course history of Earhart’s life and flying career for instance. I could also point out that the episode’s final segment – in which human remains are uncovered in the foundation of a Fijian residence – in all likelihood has absolutely nothing to do with the Earhart disappearance. To some extent, I can see how more outrageous, sensational material like this is almost necessary in modern speculative documentary programming (how else could the comparatively sober and documentary-like Expedition Unknown compete with the likes of the ridiculously absurd Mountain Monsters and the like?), but throwing in this climax that seems to have little to do with the subject of (or frankly, the rest of ) the episode nonetheless remains somewhat sketchy. Finally, I should point out that this show (like Destination Truth before it) sometimes feels like one big ego trip for Gates, showing how “cool” and “hip” he is. Over time, I think one warms up to the host, his humor and style, but I could see some people being turned off by his approach (as I was when I first saw Destination Truth years ago).

Future episodes
Who knows what future episodes of the series will bring, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Ultimately, the problem with this show (and many others of its kind) is that no major revelation comes out of it – but that’s strictly par for the course these days. Expedition Unknown is perfectly agreeable for what it is: an entertaining and enjoyable program that attempts to shed light on mysterious places and events while following its host around the world. It may be too jokey for some, but I think this show has just the right amount of fun and fact, making its subject matter tolerable for those who wouldn’t otherwise watch an “educational” program. I’ll be interested to see what direction this first season heads in since there are so many potential topics out there for the show to explore, but at this early juncture, I’m calling the series worthwhile and recommended.

“No Theory, No Matter How Outrageous, Can Be Ignored:” THE CURSE OF OAK ISLAND

THE CURSE OF OAK ISLAND on History Channel

image-placeholder

See it at The History Channel website 

(2.5/5) MEH

Pros: The Oak Island Mystery!
Cons: Reality TV moments; simply isn’t all that compelling

In 1795, eighteen year old Daniel McGinnis stumbled upon something off the coast of Nova Scotia on Oak Island. Seeing evidence of a recent dig, McGinnis and some companions began excavation of the site and eventually came upon a shaft which has become known over the years as “The Money Pit,” both because it’s rumored to have treasure at the bottom of it and because of the amount of money that various persons have invested in an attempt to discover said treasure. In 1803 and after having reaching a depth of 90 feet, a stone bearing a mysterious inscription (believed by some to have read “forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried”) was found in the pit but shortly thereafter, the entire shaft began to fill with sea water, as if the excavation had tripped a booby trap set by the original diggers. For the past two hundred years, Oak Island has been the site of numerous treasure hunting operations which have littered the island with holes, destabilized the ground, and destroyed most of the potential clues relating to the site, but this hasn’t stopped people from dreaming about what may potentially lie buried on the island.

one of the many holes on the island
One of the many holes dug into the island over the years.

In early 2014, History Channel premiered a new program entitled The Curse of Oak Island in which a multi-person team led by brothers Marty and Rick Lagina, who effectively own half the island, attempt to discover just what lies hidden there. Set up as a reality show that chronicles efforts not only to uncover the truth behind various legends relating to the Oak Island mystery but also detail the excavations and digs taking place there, The Curse of Oak Island revolves around the notion that the island is cursed. Six people have died while excavating in and around The Money Pit, and legend has it that one more must perish before the treasure can be uncovered. Can we expect high drama at some point in the show’s run? Only time will tell…

laginas
Marty and Rick Lagina. The show’s all about them – and they let a viewer know it.

During the show’s first season, Marty and Rick mainly went about draining a mysterious, triangle-shaped swamp and exploring a man-made cove on the island. While there wasn’t much progress in actually discovering any treasure, the team did make a few tantalizing finds – notably, a large amount of coconut fiber which apparently was used as fill material in the creation of the cove and additionally, a 17th century copper coin. Since there are no coconut trees on Oak Island, the fiber is an indication that perhaps the legends of Caribbean pirates traveling to the location may in fact be true, and the appearance of the coin seems to corroborate the story. Season two of the show picks off right where the first season ended, showing Marty and Rick preparing for another digging season on Oak Island. As expected in any reality show, there’s plenty of turmoil and potential problems relating to their operations, one of which is a piece of government legislation that would put an end to any and all treasure hunting on site. Furthermore, the team runs into problems when attempting to use a incredibly heavy drilling rig to find the location of either the original Money Pit or one of the many subsequent so-called “seeker shafts” that were constructed in an attempt to locate a supposed treasure vault that’s rumored to be situated at a depth of around 140 feet underground.

memorial
Memorial to those who perished while seeking the Oak Island Treasure, but will a seventh name be added?

Obviously designed to be entertainment on some sort of level and having a premise that is undeniably seductive and fascinating, The Curse of Oak Island is a well-produced and tightly constructed show, yet it suffers from being yet another program on a presumably educational channel that I can’t in good conscience entirely trust. The reality show format means that there seems to be an awful lot of manipulation going on with how the circumstances happening on the island are related to the camera and presented for the viewer, and the fact that no significant news stories have been put forth about this excavation only solidifies for me that much of what is going on here may in fact be fabricated or at least not entirely authentic. The lack of news coverage also makes it tough for me to believe that much of anything significant will ever be found on Oak Island, and therefore this show doesn’t so much seem to be working towards a monumental discovery as just serving as a semi-agreeable time waste.

what treasure?
What treasure lies at the bottom of these semi-collapsed shafts?

Keeping with the traditions of the many borderline ludicrous “documentaries” on the History Channel (I’m talking about you American Unearthed and Ancient Aliens), The Curse of Oak Island focuses a large amount of attention on some rather cockamamie ideas about what actually is buried on the island and who put it there. These theories involve everyone from the Templars, to famous Caribbean pirates, to the English government, to the ancient Phoenicians, and early in season two, Marty and Rick entertain an idea proposed by treasure hunter J. Hutton Pulitzer that treasures from King Solomon’s temple (such as the Ark of the Covenant) may have been hidden on Oak Island. Theories like these are a staple of programs like Ancient Aliens, and at times, it almost seems like the purpose in including ideas like this in History Channel shows is simply to name-drop and thereby give some sort of credibility to programs that in no way shape or form deserve it (not helping matters is the fact that Curse is produced by the same company as Ancient Aliens and narrated by Robert Clotworthy, who also provides the frequently goofy and obnoxious commentary for that show).

sludging away in the Oak Island swamp
Sludging away in the Oak Island Swamp.

I should at this point say that the most enjoyable thing I get out of this show is watching Marty and Rick Lagina (who aren’t especially compelling or even likable as main characters) fail in their efforts to find anything on the island. Millions upon millions of dollars have been blown at Oak Island over the past few centuries, and I’m not entirely sure that the Lagina’s money will be enough to uncover anything. That the Lagina’s whole problem-solving approach seems to be to throw boatloads of money at the issue until it works out only makes it even more gleefully satisfying to see when they don’t get the results they want. To be completely honest, while it’d be interesting to see what exactly the ultimate secret of Oak Island really is, I don’t at all wish to see a historical discovery be made by this group of whining and almost cocky treasure hunters who (despite their claims to be “respecting history and Nova Scotia”), have made no effort of adhering to archaeological standards. Hell, the group of people featured in this show (which also features several life-long Oak Island excavators such as Dan Blankenship and his son Dave) would probably be as likely to destroy something they found through sheer incompetence than to actually recover it.

endless money
Can seemingly endless cash reserves finally solve the mystery of Oak Island?

Having been rather familiar with the Oak Island mystery before watching this show, I find the most intriguing thing about it to be the brief historical segments relating to the discovery of the pit and the various excavations that have occurred on site. The Curse of Oak Island makes use of some wonderful archival materials and occasionally reveals some captivating stories from the island’s history, but nothing can quite make up for the fact that, when taken individually, none of the episodes of this program are all that exciting to watch. Painfully dull at times since there’s very little honest humor on display, the program also suffers from the fact that the situation featured here simply doesn’t have much tension despite the many, phony cliffhanger moments set up through a slick editing scheme. Though I’ll sit through most any of the current wave of documentary-like reality shows dealing with mysterious circumstances or phenomena since I enjoy these sorts of subjects, Curse of Oak Island has to be one of the most boring of the lot. I’d say it’s something that most people would be better off skipping – at least until something legitimately valuable is discovered.