The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft’ (2022)
Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love,” built from roughly 200 hours of footage made by the married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, was one of the past year’s breakout documentaries. It’s up for an Oscar at next month’s awards. But it wasn’t the only archival feature last year drawn from the Kraffts’ material. The other, “The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft,” was directed by no less than Werner Herzog, and it too is worth seeing. Comparing the two movies makes for a fascinating case study in how directors can take divergent approaches to essentially the same assignment.
While Dosa focused much of her movie on the Kraffts’ relationship and shared passion — she has described “Fire of Love” as a love triangle involving the two of them and the volcanoes — Herzog adopts a more cosmic perspective. The Kraffts fit neatly within his gallery of quixotic figures unintimidated by what, in “Grizzly Man,” he called “the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Herzog puts the Kraffts’ deaths — they were killed while observing the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991 — up front, dwelling on video that shows them waiting at the volcano that would kill them and considering what they and other onlookers would have been thinking as the clock ticked down. He then runs down other narrow escapes that happened during their career. Over footage of an eruption in Alaska, Herzog, narrating as usual, marvels at how Maurice does not flee but instead calmly keeps the action in frame until he runs out of film.
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Clearly Herzog sees the Kraffts as kindred spirits — fellow intrepid globe-trotting auteurs. (Near the end, he confesses that he would have given much if he “could have been their companion.”) And while “Fire of Love” was also concerned with the Kraffts’ evolution as filmmakers, and with the extent to which they played for the camera, Herzog’s perspective is more eccentric. As he contemplates how the Kraffts’ gaze became, in his estimation, less scientific and more humanistic, he is drawn to the material they shot of people and of animals, in clips that have no volcanoes at all. Nobody has ever filmed landscapes like them, he says. “Some of it has the quality of dreams.”
‘Good Night Oppy’ (2022)
When the Oscars announced this year’s shortlist for best documentary feature, one of the more noticed absences was that of “Good Night Oppy,” the crowd-pleasing film that reconstructed the journeys of Opportunity and Spirit, twin Mars rovers that NASA launched in 2003. Both lasted far longer on Mars than scientists had planned for.
Perhaps one of the film’s techniques — using visual effects work from Industrial Light & Magic to depict Mars and the robots, because as advanced as the rovers were, they weren’t shooting a movie — struck voters as insufficiently purist. If so, that’s fair, but the alternative would have been far less fun. It quickly becomes tough not to anthropomorphize the robots in much the way that the scientists did. “It’s just a box of wires, right?” the camera operations engineer Doug Ellison says early in the film. “But you end up with this cute-ish looking robot that has a face.” It’s a face that will, on Opportunity’s 5000th Mars day, be featured as the subject of the solar system’s first interplanetary selfie.
While Opportunity stayed in service for more than 14 years, the director, Ryan White, and an extensive roster of NASA scientists and engineers recount how just how easily the rovers might not have lasted so long or gone so far. Even before they reached Mars, hazards found them: During the journey, they were beset by what we’re told are unprecedented solar flares that could have scuttled the mission. On Mars, each round of troubleshooting, as the rovers’ controllers on Earth figure out how to unmoor Opportunity’s wheels or how to get Spirit out of a rebooting loop, offers a fresh source of suspense.
The considerable time lag between commands and responses would only have made the breath-holding more intense on Earth. But given White’s considerable access to archival footage, and the accessible way in which his movie explains aspects of science, watching “Good Night Oppy” is probably the next-best thing to watching from the lab.
‘Last Flight Home’ (2022)
Unlike “Good Night Oppy,” Ondi Timoner’s “Last Flight Home” made the Oscars’ feature-documentary shortlist, but it missed the final cut of five nominees. It deserved to be there.
The film shows Timoner and members of her family as they prepare for the death of her father, Eli Timoner, who chose to die at 92 under California’s End of Life Option Act. Although the law has since been modified, when filming occurred, the act required a 15-day waiting period after the patient’s first oral request to a doctor for the medication. Timoner left cameras running during that period. And what sounds on paper like an uncomfortably invasive exercise becomes a powerful and moving portrait of a resilient, tight-knit clan collectively bracing for what’s coming.
Partly, the film is a tribute to the warmth of Eli himself, a former airline president set back by a stroke at age 53. (At the time of his death, he had been partly paralyzed for nearly four decades, and also had congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.) Ondi and her brother, David, discuss the strangeness of the situation and of what they know they’re about to lose with Eli. “He’s the last of that generation,” David says. “You know, once he’s gone, it’s like that link to the past is gone.” Rachel, a rabbi, is to Eli both a grieving daughter and a spiritual counselor who helps him let go of lingering regrets. (When Ondi tries to reassure him during the ritual, Rachel stops her: “The exercise is not to give him narration.” There is always enough humor with this family to prevent the film from collapsing under the weight of its heavy subject.)
Through it all, it’s clear Eli is preparing for death on his own terms, surrounded by his loved ones. By law, multiple doctors have to sign off, and he must take the drugs himself. But “Last Flight Home” is more than simply a film about a social issue. It’s a profound, uniquely intimate portrait of the universal process of letting go.