Review by Sean Boelman
One of the magical things about archival war documentaries is that they have the ability to make the viewer feel as if they are in the moment so that they can experience the horrors of war secondhand. Erik Nelson’s new documentary Apocalypse ‘45 is a powerful watch, even if it drags a bit, thanks to the filmmaker’s brilliant construction of available materials.
Being released near the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-J Day, which marked the United States’ victory against Japan during WWII, the movie offers a firsthand account of the war from those who fought in it. Even though there are plenty of documentaries about WWII, the thing about Nelson’s film that stands out the most is that it explores the Pacific Front as opposed to the much more well-known Western Front.
The movie’s emotional impact admittedly pales in comparison to other recent archive-based war documentaries, perhaps because the presentation is a tad monotonous in nature, but it’s still a treat to see footage that is so raw and up close, especially given the fact that documentaries frequently reuse many of the same iconic images and clips.
Nelson’s footage, on the other hand, feels quite different from what we have seen before. Of course, it’s television-friendly material, so the more gnarly side of the war isn’t depicted here, but Nelson still does an excellent job of making the audience recognize the terror these people were experiencing.
At an hour and forty five minutes, the movie’s a lot to handle, especially given how dark and bleak some of the narrative can be at times, but amateur historians and documentary-lovers will be enthralled with this informational and insightful glimpse into an oft-overlooked portion of WWII.
If there is one thing about the film that should have been improved, it is the way in which it explored its subjects. For the movie, Nelson interviewed many retired soldiers, using their stories in their own words as a voiceover for the archive materials he is presenting. It’s definitely nice to hear them now, as it won’t be too long before those first hand stories are no longer available from the source.
Nelson’s purpose with the film seems to be to reinforce the idea that these people were the “greatest generation”, and while some of the more humble subjects may disagree with that assessment, he makes a good case for it. The key to his success is that he clearly values sacrifice as opposed to the traditional value of jingoism.
Apocalypse ‘45 is a bit overlong, but thanks to its wonderful use of archive footage, it ends up being a pretty great movie. Filmmaker Erik Nelson clearly knows how to make a documentary that’s cinematic.
Apocalypse ‘45 streams online in partnership with indie theaters beginning August 14. A list of participating locations can be found here. It then airs on Discovery Channel on September 5.