Unpromisingly, Five Came Back, which surveys the military service of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler -- who cut off their Hollywood careers to serve in the Second World War and were thereafter irrevocably changed -- opens with footage of the Academy Awards. There, in brisk montage, are the moviemakers, receiving Oscar statuettes, as if upfront evidence of prestigious hardware were required to grasp the attention of fast-scrolling Netflix subscribers.
It seems a weirdly superficial entry into a narrative -- adapted from critic and journalist Mark Harris' history Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) -- of carnage, horror and trauma. Harris concluded that exposure to humanity's capacity for evil challenged these men's grasp of the world and altered their work.
Fortunately, as it progresses, the profit of translating Harris' thorough and engrossing text into the footage-rich format of the docuseries materializes. If Harris, who wrote the adaptation himself, and Laurent Bouzereau, who directed, gloss over ambiguities in their hurried set-up, their interests snap into focus when their narrative catches up to the war. Like the day-to-day business of their Hollywood gigs, the men's wartime work was defined by compromise and negotiation, their artistic aspirations being fought at each step by powerful overseers with concrete interests. The U.S. government had even more restrictive demands than the studio bosses: It wanted short, professional docs made to persuade American boys and men to enter the fight.
The transition into the theater of war especially inspires the talking heads: Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass and Guillermo del Toro speak with specificity and power about their forebears' work.