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Finest Hour

Paramount PBS Documentaries Document War Without Spin

by Jim Bray

At a time when lies are peddled by a partisan media, and hypocritical phonies such as Michael Moore are honored for creating propaganda, it's nice to see documentaries that merely inform and educate.

Such is the case with these three documentaries, which are among the best, if not the best, I have ever seen. The fact that they come from the left-leaning PBS shows me that there's still hope.

All three documentaries look at different aspects of World War II, possibly the most important event in the 20th century - a time when ordinary people put their lives and their loves on hold, and pledged their lives and their fortunes - and, yes, their sacred honor - to fight for a cause bigger than themselves.

That was a generation that could see beyond themselves, could grasp the big picture - an ability even shared by most in media of the time. Would that this were the case today, when western civilization is fighting for its very existence against those who would destroy it from within and without.

Finest Hour - the Battle of Britain, is quite simply the finest documentary I've ever seen. At times heart breaking, at other times riveting and inspiring, it chronicles the time when mainland Europe began falling to the advancing Nazis and England stood virtually alone, aided only by Canada and Australia and perhaps a few others including citizens who'd managed to escape their European prison and crossed the English Channel to fight with the Allies and help free their homelands.

The latter points were my only quibbles with this outstanding documentary: It clearly says England was alone, when there clearly were other countries involved - and the fact that it took America until the end of 1941 to get involved doesn't change that.

Now, I don't mean that as a slam on the Americans; there's nothing wrong with being slow to war - qualities America displays even today in its interminable runup to an unfortunate but necessary invasion of Iraq as part of the war against terrorism. But it would have been nice if they'd spread a little of the credit around beyond Great Britain. Then again, the Brits did shoulder the lion's share of the burden.

But back to Finest Hour.

Finest Hour tells the story of that period through the eyes of those who were there, with interviews of survivors who, in their typically stiff upper lip, self deprecrating British manner, reminisce about a time of horror and fear and trial as if there were nothing heroic about their actions at all, and that all the heros were others, their friends and relatives and neighbors - especially those who didn't come home.

The filmmakers use first rate narration, the abovementioned personal accounts, excellent footage (though I'm not sure if it was of the actual events or edited together fromo ther sources to simulate them) as well as some reconstructions. The result is a fine piece of documentary filmmaking that, rather than merely recount facts and figures and dates and names, draws you into the mood of that time and makes you identify with the people whose stories are interweaved with the earth changing events that unfolded around them.

All I could say after seeing this was "Wow!" Finest Hour doesn't comment, doesn't rewrite history, doesn't moralize or justify - it just tells it as it must have been and lets the audience draw its own conclusions.

Finest Hour works on all levels - as a collection of inspiring, often touching reports from men and women who were there and as a recounting of the behind-the-scenes relationship and machinations of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt - with Canada's Mackenzie King along for the ride as a kind of go between, back when Canada was relevant.

The story begins with the Low Countries and France occupied by Nazi Germany and the British fighting a losing battle in France that leads to their humiliating pullout at Dunkirk. In fact, if you only thought of the Battle of Britain as Spitfires against the Luftwaffe, you'll be surprised to see that the air battle doesn't even begin until part two of this documentary!

As an aviation fan, I was a tad disappointed in that, but as someone who's more interested in history the older I get, I was grateful for the information I got.

You will get an idea of what it was like to live in bustling London, only to have the city come down around you thanks to German bombs. And what it was like to work in the British forces of the time, with a nasty but necessary job to do. And what it was like to be in the halls of power. And what it was like to be a little boy growing up amid the greatest fireworks display a lad could imagine.

You'll also meet Spitfire and Hurricane fighter pilots, sailors who survived Nazi U-boat attacks and floated for days in the Atlantic before being rescued, young girls being evacuated to Canada whose ship was sunk and who also were rescued against all hope.

The battle footage is truly amazing, and the dramatization doesn't in any way take away from the realism of the experience or detract from the facts - rather it helps drive home the other images, and enhance the mood. Are you paying attention, Mister Moore?

It's riveting stuff - right up to and including the end, when one of the survivors describes working in the war room and being able to hear her new fiance shot out of the sky. Her regret? That they hadn't married and had even a couple of days together as husband and wife.

These are real people, people of character and wit - and perspective.

An unbelievable piece of documentary filmmaking.

The picture is presented in a widescreen letterboxed format, unfortunately, which means that owners of widescreen TV's will want to zoom it out to fill the screen, at a resulting loss of picture resolution. It's a shame, because the documentary is definitely produced in widescreen, so it boggles the mind that Paramount didn't enhance it for 16x9 TV's during the transfer to the digital disc.

Audio is fine. It's supposedly Dolby Surround Stereo, but it's really just up front, and that's okay. This film doesn't call for any gee whiz audio effects and, fortunately, we don't get any.

Finest Hour - The Battle of Britain, from Paramount Home Entertainment
220 min. widescreen letterbox format (not 16x9 TV compatible) Dolby Digital stereo surround



Churchill is a three-part look at the myths and the man - the man who personified the British Lion at a time when the country needed a strong leader the most. He was loved and hated, respected and feared - and a larger than life and colorful character whose inspiration lives on today.

Episode 1, Destiny, recounts the great man's early life, from his high toned birth, his search for glory in battle, his first climb up the political ladder and his first fall from grace.

Episode 2, The Lion's Roar, follows Churchill's leadership of Britain through its "finest hour" (see above) during the Battle of Britain and through its darkest hour when the war wasn't going well at all.

Episode 3, The Last Prize, opens with Churchill's trip to the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 after the D-Day invasion. From there, it looks at Churchill's second kick at the can as Prime Minister and his struggles both public and private, including failing health, until his death in January 1965.

It's good stuff, told through the eyes of people who knew him. The program used Churchill's historian granddaughter Celia Sandys as an advisor and, as with Finest Hour, it's a straightforward retelling of his life without any undue editorializing on the part of the film makers.

This DVD comes with extras, too, including "outtakes" and an interview with director Lucy Carter.

This disc is also presented properly, in anamorphic widescreen that's compatible with 16x9 TV's - the way it should be. Picture quality is all over the map, because it blends contemporary and archival footage, but overall it's eminently watchable.

Audio is Dolby Digital Surround Stereo and it's okay.

Churchill, from Paramount Home Entertainment
180 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital surround stereo

D-Day Down to Earth

D-Day: Down to Earth - Return of the 507th, One Regiment's Journey to Remember

This started off looking like propaganda and moralizing, thanks to a couple of not necessarily relevant pokes at conscription, but it quickly turned into a compelling and moving documentary that's a perfect companion piece to "Finest Hour."

It follows an American parachute infantry regiment, the 507th - whose date with destiny began on June 6, 1944 as its men parachuted into France in preparation for the massive invasion that followed a few hours later.

If you've seen the series Band of Brothers, you'll know what this is about. This is a real life Band of Brothers, telling their stories in their own words when brought together again for the first time in 60 years. The occasion was their return to the small French town where a bunch of American boys became men as they attempted to liberate Europe from the yoke of totalitarianism.

As with Finest Hour, this is a documentary they should be showing in history classes today; it's especially relevant to the young generation now coming up. It gives an excellent perspective on the men - and women - who helped to create the world we know today. It's particularly timely during the war against terror to see what these people fought, and why, and even how.

For those of you who sit back in your easy chairs, opining about how bad war is and how we shouldn't study war no more, these documentaries help to show that sometimes you have a Hilter or a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein who's bent on killing those with whom he doesn't agree - and the only way to preserve one's freedom and way of life is to take up arms against such evil, for the common good.

This film captures in vivid detail the determination, courage and love for freedom that each of these brave soldiers carried into battle. It shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and it brings home the pain, the heartbreak that's losing your best buddy in a moment - and there's nothing you can do about it except leave him and keep on fighting.

As the son of one who fought in World War II, a Canadian bomber crew member, it brings a lump to my throat watching these documentaries unfold before me, clearly showing the character and the mettle of the generation before mine - a group of ordinary patriots who gave their all to not only save the world they knew, but so they could come home again and build the world we know today, a world where most of us have never had to repeat their sacrifices.

They gave their all, and they gave us their all afterward. They sheltered us from the storm and protected us from harm. And, unfortunately, despite their best hopes we grew up fat and lazy and self centered and ungrateful.

These documentaries put it all into perspective, not only for those who went, but for those like me who didn't have to go later. It also puts today into perspective, for those who are once again answering the call. May they be as successful in their task, and may we honor them in kind when they finally come home again.

This DVD is presented with full frame video, so owners of 16x9 TV's will want to stretch and/or zoom their TV's to get the picture to fill the screen. Picture and sound quality, as with the other documentaries, are appropriate to the subject matter at hand.

D-Day: Down to Earth - Return of the 507th, One Regiment's Journey to Remember, from Paramount Home Entertainment
Full frame video (1.33:1, not 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital Surround Stereo

Life Beyond Earth

Life Beyond Earth on DVD

Is there anybody out there?

No, we don’t mean in the Pink Floyd The Wall manner, but "Are we alone in the universe?" Is Mother Earth truly the cradle of all life as we know it – or even as we don’t know it?

Big questions, those, and this Timothy Ferris/Paramount/PBS DVD attempts to answer them for us.

Alas, this documentary looks at facts and tries to explain and extrapolate, but in the end, Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact does a more interesting job. that fictional movie asks most of the same questions, plus some this DVD doesn’t touch on, as well as spinning a ripping yarn in a flick that should have seen Jody Foster win an Oscar for her performance.

But this isn’t Contact.

Ferris is a decent host and he kicks the discussion off by covering how life developed here on Earth and Darwin’s theory of evolution, then extrapolates from there as to whether life could have developed elsewhere.

Ferris illustrates how scientists think life would have to be if it were to exist elsewhere, then spends the rest of the time explaining the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and how radio telescopes are used in that search. Ferris does a pretty good job of making complex topics understandable though, once again, Zemeckis did it better.

Ferris, who to be fair is quite entertaining, also brings in experts such as scientist and author Stephen Jay Gould to opine, but for the most part the presentation is Ferris and assorted production values.

The documentary is dedicated to Carl Sagan, which makes sense, and covers quite a bit of territory in its running time. Sagan, in his old series Cosmos, proved to be a better host, or at least a more scientifically credible one (and there’s nothing in this particular production that can spawn impressionists like Sagan’s “billions and billions” catchphrase could) but Ferris is okay and this disc can serve as an interesting primer into the topic.

The DVD is presented in widescreen, though for some reason it isn't 16x9 TV compatible and that means you'll have to zoom the picture to fill the 16x9 screen. That takes away a lot of detail from a picture quality that's merely okay to start with.

Ditto the sound, which is Dolby Digital surround stereo and which is okay but unremarkable. This is not a DVD you’ll want to use to show off your home theater, and that’s a shame considering some of the nifty special effects shots.

For extras you get an additional commentary by Timothy Ferris.

The Creation of the Universe

The Creation of the Universe on DVD

Timothy Ferris is back in this story about how we got to where we are today. It’s a pretty good introduction to our universe as we know it today how it came to be.

Yep, you’ll get a big bang out of this DVD!


This program is a tad out of date now, but not enough to make it as laughable as old tomes in which the earth is the center of the universe! And it does give some solid scientific background and introduction to the topic – and that’s always a good thing.

So if you want to learn some basic cosmology in an engaging and easygoing way that any layman can understand and enjoy, this may be just your ticket.

If not, try Stephen Hawking’s Universe, reviewed immediately below.

The DVD is presented in the full frame format suitable for traditional 4x3 aspect ratio TV's. The picture quality is okay, though by no means spectacular. Ditto for the Dolby Surround Stereo audio.

The disc also features an audio commentary by Timothy Ferris.

Stephen Hawking's Universe

Stephen Hawking’s Universe

If there’s anything close to a rock star in the world of science these days, it is arguable Stephen Hawking. His book "A Brief History of Time" was a best selling introduction to life, the universe and everything (with our apologies to the late Douglas Adams), and this DVD set is kind of a video version of that.

Hawking, who hosts some of the show from his wheelchair and with voiceovers, gives us some of the Big Picture, and what a picture it is. The series also uses interviews with other respected scientists along with artistic cinematography that heakens back to Sagan’s Cosmos (though we still like Cosmos the best – granting that it’s more out of date than this production is).

You’ll learn about Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Hubble, and Einstein and the knowledge base (or at least theoretical knowledge base!) they created by climbing onto the shoulders of the giants they followed.

The series also tackles the history of chemistr (as opposed to the chemistry of history, we suppose), the periodic table, and how Curie's radiation experiments allowed Einstein to craft his theory of relativity as well as his thoughts about the relationship between energy and matter.

Then we learn about antimatter matters, nutrinos, and nutrino hunters (whose prey appear to be always in season).

And that ain’t all! Hawking points our attention to SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and how it’s trying to find little green men out in the cosmos. You’ll learn about quasars and black holes and Hawking and his contemporaries try to resolve the Big Bang.

The series is easy to understand and to follow, yet there’s plenty of scientific detail and BIG CONCEPTS.

In all, this is a terrific primer for learning what the leading minds of our time think are the facts behind our existence.

Again, though, except for it being slightly more dated, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos did a better job of putting these things into perspective, at least so far as displaying a sense of awe and wonder that this series, as good as it is, can’t match.

But that doesn’t mean this set isn’t worthwhile, by any means. There’s plenty of meat here and it's highly recommended.

The DVD set contains the 6 hour series on three discs. The full frame picture, which of course isn't 16x9 TV compatible, is fine and the Dolby Surround Stereo audio is also okay.


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