Tag Archives: history documentaries

Hindsight 2020

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

by George Wolf

You want to understand the economic mess we’re in? Simple. It all comes down to horses and board games.


Watch Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and more than just vague analogies will come into startling focus.

New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton has assembled an array of scholars and historians (including Thomas Piketty, author of the source book) for a 103-minute presentation that is so informative, measured and concise it should earn you college credits.

There are graphs, illustrations and pop culture snippets from film and television that Pemberton weaves throughout the lecture material to attract the eye and boost the film’s overall entertainment value. But make no mistake, his mission is about breaking down the 400 years of history that explain the social and economic precipice we’re teetering on right now.

The breakdown is an accomplishment in itself, but Pemberton and his scholars never condescend or confuse, bringing an immeasurable value to the medium delivering this invaluable message.

And while some of the lessons are not new (i.e. we need a strong middle class) the context here is so vivid and relevant many observations may land with an echo of “eureka!” inside your head.

The history of nations carrying staggering wealth inequality and stagnant social mobility is not pleasant, but the ironic timing of Pemberton’s film helps fuel the hope that total socio-economic collapse may still be avoided.

The key lies in totally re-shaping the way a population thinks, which historically has only been achieved through seismic cultural shifts such as a war or a depression.

Or a pandemic?

We’ll see, but by the time Capital in the Twenty-First Century is done telling you about the horses and the board games, there will be little doubt why the “job creators” are so anxious to give us the business.

One Is the Loneliest Number

One Child Nation

by George Wolf

A heartbreaking, sometimes devastating and absolutely necessary history lesson, One Child Nation turns a filmmaker’s very personal story into a profile of shared helplessness.

Nanfu Wang grew up in China during the nation’s strict “one child per family” social policy. Launched in 1979 and added to the Chinese constitution three years later, the policy endured until 2015, leaving scarred generations of parents and children in its wake.

Wang (who also provides frequent narration and commentary) and her co-director Jialing Zhang detail the shocking number of people affected by the policy, the horrifying lengths with which it was enforced, and the splinters of impact it continues to leave on families living oceans apart.

With interviews often reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer’s unforgettable doc The Act of Killing, Wang looks back on atrocities with those who personally carried them out. The repeated defense of “I had no choice” is layered with startling and timely reminders of both Orwellian propaganda campaigns and the worldwide struggle for women’s rights.

In another deeply poignant segment, we meet an elderly midwife desperately using the last years of her life in hopes of atonement for her past.

But the success Wang has with many of these interviews only makes the film’s main weakness more glaring.

Where are the women who personally endured the forced abortions and sterilizations? Where are the mothers whose newborn daughters were casually abandoned or sold? Despite an early warning for Wang to “not make trouble,” there is no clear explanation why this seemingly necessary perspective is lacking.

Otherwise, One Child Nation – disturbing as it often is – attacks an inhuman policy with an effectively informed humanity, along with a dire warning about whitewashing history.

“No child should be separated from their parents.”

Imagine that.

Suicide Squeeze

The Spy Behind Home Plate

by George Wolf

Two movies about Moe Berg in the last twelve months? What gives?

And who’s Moe Berg?

Decades before Austin Powers, Morris “Moe” Berg was an international man of mystery. A 15 year veteran of the Major Leagues, Berg was also a Princeton grad, a voracious reader with a photographic memory who clung to his privacy. He was a lawyer, a quiz show champion and an international spy who was once dispatched on a WWII kamikaze mission to assassinate the head of Germany’s nuclear research program.

Astounding stuff from a guy who, according to baseball legend Casey Stengel, “Could speak seven languages, but couldn’t hit in any of them!”

Just last summer, Paul Rudd played Berg in the enjoyable but underseen The Catcher Was a Spy. Now, documentarian Aviva Kempner brings a no-frills, uber-informative approach to uncovering the real Berg with The Spy Behind Home Plate.

Kempner (Rosenwald, The Life and Times of Hank Grennberg) unveils a succession of talking heads joined by wonderful archival stills and videos. Perhaps to mirror her subject, Aviva’s film is short on style, but it’s substance is extra innings worthy.

As unbelievable as Berg’s story is, the dry presentation doesn’t do much to entice the casually interested. But if you find these undertold slices of history fascinating, you’ll be hooked enough to want to seek out Rudd’s version next.