Recommendations: Documentaries

I really like watching well made documentaries; I like them in the way I like most things, I don’t want to agree with them all the time, I want to learn things or angles I didn’t know before. Herethen are some recommendations for documentaries I think are worth a watch:

Fog of War – An Oscar award winning series of interviews with Robert McNamara, which might elicit a “Who?” look from many – this man was in on most of the strategies and US military decisions from the statistical effectiveness of fire-bombing Tokyo in 1945, to the Cuban missile crisis escalation and potential invasion via the Bay of Pigs, through to escalation in Viet Nam, this man was in the room. He was an old man when he made the interviews in 2003, and it’s definitely him clearing the decks a bit, and admitting many strategies were based on dangerously incomplete information or understanding and that frankly in many ways he was wrong. Fascinating.

Food, Inc. – like many, I’m becoming quite concerned about the quality and origin of the food I eat; in this documentary, very like the book ‘Fast Food Nation‘, they look at the food chain in America and how big business may be massively compromising a nations diet. ‘Fast Food Nation’s’ author (Eric Schlosser) is interviewed throughout the documentary, and there’s plenty of interviews with the people actually involved – farmers, lobbyists, people being sued by Monsanto and some other ideas which really will make you sit up. It’s about the way things which are actually dangerous have been repeated so often, some people are beginning to think it’s normal. You should also read Fast Food Nation.

Supersize Me – Although not a truly ‘fair’ documentary, this is tragically funny to watch as a man (Morgan Spurlock)  submits himself to 30 days of McDonalds for every meal. It’s not scientific, and McD’s does get a rougher deal than some other companies, but the effect of eating all that fast food for so long is almost painful to watch. Along the way he meets and interviews people who love the food, hate the food and the effect it’s had on them. It also looks at the way children are targeted with Happy Meals and other promotions. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but it’s fairly compelling anyway, and there is a sense of humour to it.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room – It’s difficult to watch this expose of the Enron scandal/fiasco and not laugh outright or wonder how it all happened; from invented companies, to essentially faking the need for blackouts in California, to having strippers dancing on office tables, this documentary of the book tracks the people behind the Enron tale, and how they managed to build something from very little, and how essentially no one who should have been paying attention was interested as long as it kept rolling. They also look at former Enron employees left without pensions and the price some paid to keep the dream going. Definitely more bizarre than any fictional business novel.

King of Kong – I’ve included this because it’s a small scale but competent documentary about something you rarely hear about – the setting and official sanctioning of arcade game records. This one recounts a couple of years in the lives of two players, but also the community around game high scores, right up the the Guinness book of World Records. One is the incumbent, a cocky and self righteous man who never seems to play in public, and how everyone seems to want to suck up to him, and the challenger, and ‘almost’ man who started doing it as a distraction from job hunting, who becomes increasingly, and somewhat sadly obsessed. It’s also a story of how people use relatively minor things to prop up their whole faltering lives, and is more a study of their lives than the games they play.

You can also get a decent selection of documentaries streamed for free on if you can live with watching them on a PC screen.  I’m looking to get ‘The Cove’ and ‘Man on Wire’ on DVD from Amazon in a few weeks, so that should be interesting. Let me know if there’s more I should definitely be seeing.