The 10 best documentaries
you should watch right now
LIFE 1 May 2020
By Simon Ings
Planet Earth II
Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, Our Planet and Seven Worlds, One Planet
BBC iPlayer, Netflix, SkyGo
Watch the last few years’ major natural history television narrated by David Attenborough, and you will witness a remarkable change. Everyone’s favourite pre-watershed naturalist finally seems to have become angry about the state of the planet, and about our role in its decline. Planet Earth II was relatively upbeat about the state of the world, although its last few minutes contained a homily about various “problems”. Blue Planet II was more forthright, declaring a war on ocean plastics that has gathered much pace and enthusiasm since the show first aired in 2017.
Two years later, and Seven Worlds, One Planet saw storms generated by global antrhopogenic climate change blow albatross chicks out of their nests. At last the Natural History Unit’s betters at the BBC had abandoned their pursuit of a specious “balance” around the climate change emergency, and were letting their filmmakers, and Attenborough, tell the unvarnished truth about the natural world – or what was left of it.
But they had been gazumped: Netflix had already recruited the same community of producers, filmmakers and naturalists to produce their own series, Our Planet. This, surely is what the BBC should have been making years ago. It is expensive, visually ravishing and absolutely unsparing in its analysis of where the world is headed.
Rhea Woltman, one of the Mercury 13
From Amelia Earhart to Tiny Broadwick, women feature prominently in histories of pioneering aviation. And when William Randolph Lovelace invited women pilots into his privately funded research project in the early 1960s, he got the best of the best.
Lovelace was the doctor who developed the physical and psychological tests used to select candidates for space. He had no doubts that women were capable of space flight, and he wasn’t alone. Russia sent the first woman – Valentina Tereshkova – into space in 1963.
In the US, however, NASA turned to military test pilots, who were all male, for its Apollo programme. Speaking before Congress in 1962, some of Lovelace’s women argued that they were prevented from joining on sexual discrimination grounds. Their case was thrown out.
The Mercury 13 women had the right stuff, and could have have flown, and didn’t. Yet their determination to make the most of their lot is inspiring. One taught herself aerobatics. One co-founded the National Organization of Women. And several – a nice irony – went on to have successful careers as test pilots.
Bryan Fogel, Icarus
The trick of good documentary making is knowing when the story you set out to tell isn’t half as good as the story that just landed in your lap.
Icarus director Bryan Fogel is a keen amateur cyclist and was annoyed by the way professional racer Lance Armstrong built his career on the use of performance-enhancing substances. So Fogel decided he’d attempt to cheat his way to some trophies – and make a whistleblowing documentary about the experience.
To do this properly, Fogel needed expert help, and that’s how he fell in with Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of Russia’s anti-doping programme and, it turns out, a key player in a decades-long, state-sponsored attempt to skirt the rules.
Once this is exposed, Russia is partly banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics (and banned altogether from the 2018 Winter Olympics) and Rodchenkov, turned whistleblower, flees to the US – largely thanks to Fogel.
Fogel never did cheat his way to that cycling trophy, but I don’t imagine he’s too upset: Icarus won a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Over five visually dazzling episodes, Brian Cox guides the viewer through our solar system’s 4.5-billion-year history of collisions, near misses and bizarre planetary harmonics, a dish presented on a bed of fiendish geometry, and smothered in a rich CGI sauce.
Once you get your breath back, I defy you not to rewatch The Planets immediately. The science is strong and the special effects are carefully thought through.
Our solar system’s impression of clockwork stability is an illusion. Every planet has been on an incredible journey, its fate, position and even its composition dependent on the chaotic interaction of unimaginably huge forces. Cox’s delivery is a bit over-seasoned for some tastes, but in this series I think it helps that he personifies his rocky, gassy protagonists wherever he can. Mercury, “an embryo ripped from its promising position before it could mature”, will never seem the same again.
Pandemic: How to prevent an outbreak
Pandemic: How to prevent an outbreak
How is this for timing? Last year, Isabel Castro made a chilling six-part documentary about influenzas past, present and (sound alarm here) future. She filmed all over the world, on the assumption that the next big disease to hit humanity will use the airline network to wrap itself around the globe in three months or less.
She shadowed Syra Madad, New York City’s senior director of health and hospitals, because she reckoned Trump-era budget cuts were going to fatally undermine US preparedness for the next big flu outbreak. She spent time with Jake Glanville and Sarah Ives, two scientists who were trying to create a global one-shot flu vaccine, so she could explain why such vaccines are difficult to produce. (Some of it’s down to the science; a lot of it’s down to the economics.) And she went to a poultry market in Vietnam, figuring this was as likely a source of the next pandemic as any.
No sooner did Pandemic land on the Netflix streaming service, than the whole world found itself beseiged by covid-19. And it’s a testament to Castro’s research that her series, far from feeling upstaged and irrelevant, remains a valuable (if occasionally counter-factual) guide to our present crisis.
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy
Imagine making a 65mm motion picture cinema documentary about the first moon landing – and then giving up, and filing the whole thing in a drawer. You’d be kicking yourself now. Look what Todd Douglas Miller has made of your footage! He’s spliced it with selections from 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio and reams more restored original film to make Apollo 11. Running at just one and a half hours in length, this is easily the richest human document ever made of our first extra-terrestrial adventure.
How did Miller do it? For a start, he trusted his sources. If he found a spectacular or informative shot, he’d let it run at length. If an astronaut or someone in the control centre had something useful to say, he’d let them say it, without interruption, without narration, without false drama.
That still gave him plenty to do. Editing together shots of the spectators at the rocket’s launch, he assembles a snapshot of 1960’s America that is at once intimate and epic. Matt Morton’s thumping electronic score, constructed on a period Moog synthesizer, holds everything together: the music is an actor in the unfolding drama, for sure, but it never feels tacked on.
The Ivory Game
The Ivory Game
Earth League International and its founder Andrea Crosta are the hero-detectives of this true-life thriller, which follows the trade in elephant tusks from Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia to Hong Kong, Vietnam and China.
Directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani have a penchant for drone shots of 4X4s speeding across a flat landscape. (Ladkani included several similar shots in one of our favourite documentaries of 2019, Sea of Shadows.)
In the five years before 2016, 150,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. At the same time, the likelihood of the elephants’ extinction was driving up the price of their ivory, increasing the threat to the remaining herds.
Since the film was released, there has been a little bit of good news. China banned the ivory trade at the end of 2017, and polls suggest Chinese citizens are losing interest in ivory, both as a traditional medicine and as a luxury good. Still, the elephants are far from safe, and this urgent, articulate film remains as topical as ever.
How much do you want to know about your baby? Netflix’s expensive, gripping delightful documentary, directed by Thomas Balmès, follows 15 families from around the world through the first full year of their new baby’s life. It packs in solid science along with all that adorable gurgling and bouncing. Each episode follows a different part of the process, such as bonding, food, sleep and speech.
Read more: A parent’s guide to reading a baby’s mind
Take Your Pills
Take Your Pills
Amphetamine was first sold to the public in 1932, in the form of a decongestant inhaler. Five years later, Time magazine was already warning that students were using “pep pills” to get them through their coursework. Things are now far more advanced.
Read more: Behaviour pills flood US schools
From schools to workplaces, people seem to be turning to pills to give them an edge. Director Alison Klayman isn’t bothered about the drugs themselves, however, so much as what they say about a society in which success is so hard to come by that drug-taking has become a career choice.
Working back from the death of the SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s BAFTA-nominated documentary tells the story of Tilikum, a 5500-kilogram bull orca apparently badly affected by life as a marine-park attraction.
In the wild, there are no recorded cases of orcas killing people, but Tilikum has killed three. The more we learn about the complex social lives of these creatures, the more we come to appreciate how much we have still to learn. We certainly shouldn’t be keeping them in solitary confinement.
Blackfish has been watched over 60 million times, sparking the current trend in investigative nature documentaries. It remains one of the best, and darkest, of its genre.