One of the biggest impacts of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime is the number of documentaries available to the viewing public. In fact, I could make a strong argument the digital age of viewing has been the single best thing that happened to documentary filmmakers. Documentary movies and docuseries are now water-cooler conversation pieces. Feature-length docs like “Fyre,” “Get Me Roger Stone,” and series like “The Ted Bundy Tapes” have people talking because, as the old adage goes, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
I have been documentary deep diving, exploring the medium through subscribed streaming services, and I’ve made my way though many greats: that of Werner Herzog, historical docs, true-crime stories, and any movie focusing on filmmaking in the 1970s.
The idea of seeing a documentary on the big screen always seemed odd. Every so often, there would be a nature doc from Disney or a Michael Moore movie. Lately, there’s been a lot of right-wing propaganda posing as documentaries in theaters. Aside from checking out cute animals or polarizing political commentaries, there haven’t been too many documentaries available on the big screen.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” is a different kind of documentary. It’s become something of a showpiece, making its way to theaters for occasional screenings. Directed by Peter Jackson, the doc takes old grainy footage from World War I and gives it a makeover to allow the images to feel brand-new. Jackson and his team of technicians colorized the movie with advanced techniques to make it appear clearer and more alive than ever.
The technical aspects of the movie are impressive. After opening with traditional black-and-white footage, the world opens up and is given the HD treatment once they reach the battlefield. It’s a marvel to see. There’s a stark and brutal reality to the battlefields of “The Great War” and a humanity given to those poor souls heading into the trenches. The images are bolstered by real-life accounts from the soldiers who fought the war, strung together into a single 90-minute run-on sentence I found particularly off-putting.
It represents that of a more recent Peter Jackson film: technically dazzling but lacking a strong emotional core. The images evoke feelings, as do the accounts from those who endured the living nightmare. But the images and audio don’t sync, and for some reason, Jackson doesn’t allow any moment to settle. The rapid-fire, overlapping narrative is relentless. There are some truly horrific reveals, but we’re never allowed to absorb the moment or reflect on the inhumanity because someone else starts talking almost immediately. I started to wonder if it was some kind of intentional artistic choice, but since it irritated me, I hoped it was only an accident.
Part of me thought something was missing. I wanted to see faces of those who were talking about the war. Seeing their digitally restored proxies was interesting, but it was a less-than-ideal substitute for seeing some of the actual soldiers reflecting on the horrors of what they had faced. The attempt at emotionally connecting the two ended up making the final film feel more obligatory than inspirational.
Where the movie succeeds is providing a sense of reality to a war often considered ancient history when compared to more recent conflicts so thoroughly filmed. I found myself thinking about more graphic and brutal moments from one of the 20th century’s most terrible conflicts—moments that lingered and made the sacrifices by those embroiled in such a ghastly conflict three-dimensional. It wasn’t just the blurry, disconnected footage of the brutal struggle. The movie succeeds in a number of ways, but there are missed opportunities that could have turned the technical exercise into something masterful.