Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare opening in select theaters, we look back on others docs that boldly or effectively employ dramatic recreations.
The English director Peter Watkins has long been an innovator when it comes to blending fiction and documentary: Over the years, he’s proven equally adept at re-staging history using contemporary visual language (La Commune) or else torquing reality so that it seems to be dystopian science-fiction (Punishment Park). His masterpiece, however, is The War Game, a 48-minute thought experiment commissioned by the BBC to depict the possible effects of a nuclear war on the British population. Released two years after Dr. Strangelove, the film was basically an explanation of why people needed to start worrying about the bomb. In a series of ingeniously shot and edited sequences, Watkins shows a household ripped apart in the aftermath of a bomb blast, and then goes on to dramatize the slow decline of a small-town community trying to live without food, water, or medicine.
That such apocalyptic material is presented as vérité, with the victims responding to questions from an unseen interviewer, hints at Watkins’ extra-textual interests, but the film is never an experiment for its own sake. What made The War Game so frightening to so many people was the way it placed a hypothetical scenario in the present tense. The quality of direct address marks the film as a political statement, but not just in the sense of being anti-nuclear war; what emerges in between the shock moments is a skepticism about whether or not the country’s leaders are prepared to handle an attack. There are numerous interviews with different authority figures—scientists, politicians—who are played by actors and yet parroting actual, absurd establishment rhetoric about nuclear warfare. This results in a kind of pessimistically comic tone not all that far removed from Kubrick after all.
The BBC famously declined to broadcast the film at first, citing that it was too horrific for their viewership—which, in light of Watkins’ intentions, amounted to a kind of seal of approval (as well as a vindication of his thesis that the powers-that-be didn’t want the public to know the dangers lying in store for them). It got a more official reward a year later, in the form of an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Availability: The War Game is available on an out-of-print DVD, which can be (expensively) purchased through Amazon. It’s also currently streaming for free on Daily Motion.