A Tale of Heroism in the Face of War

This documentary/feature hybrid directed by Christopher Johnson and produced by Mariana Tosca, p.g.a is a remarkable and effective piece of documentary filmmaking that chronicles the incredible stories of rescue teams during World War 2. What impressed me so much about the film is that it tells the tales of daring and courageous rescue missions rather than the pervasive violence we have all become far too familiarized and inundated with over the years between the content we consume, and all that is presented to us. These are stories that absolutely needed to be told and I'm glad that this production team behind this project decided to tell them instead of WWII stories that are commonplace. There are plenty of stories like the ones highlighted in the documentary film, but I think it's brave to dare to be different as far as the stories that are typically told, rather than the ones that need to be told. That being said, let's dive into the nitty gritty of the documentary feature hybrid.

The Setup

The setup for the story, or rather stories, plunges us right into the action with the feature narrative portion to start us off before we jump into the documentary section of the film. The editing is snappy and effective which thrusts us into the stressful situation our heroes find themselves in as their B-29 bomber was hit by flak and has started a fire in the rear of the plane. The crew debates what to do, as they believe they can continue flying so long as they put out the fire and are smart about their use of fuel and their trajectory. The crew comes to figure out the fire has become too overwhelming and they've run out of fire extinguishers - they have no choice but to bail. The pilot amazingly crash lands the plane as safely as he can into the ocean, and at this point their only hope is to survive on rafts long enough for a rescue team to hopefully come find them. The problem here is that they were uncertain of their exact location/coordinates. A couple of their crewmembers are facing death from injuries sustained, and some have perished upon impact. The opening sequence ends with them doing roll-call on the life rafts as they drift along at sea. We come to figure out that a pilot is on the way to rescue them aboard a PBY amphibious aircraft, which can land on water to save them and take off to safety. But, they remain unaware and ignorant to this fact - fearing almost certain death with little to no food or water while adrift. I was impressed with the opening sequence as the situation and stakes are laid out clearly. And the filmmaking on display is very admirable considering in all likelihood the production team did not have the privilege of enjoying a blockbuster budget. Once again, the opening dramatic narrative is a very effective way of capturing the audience's attention and setting up the story and the documentary for the next hour plus.

The Narrative

The narrative on display here is focused on the heroes who set out on dangerous rescue missions throughout the course of the US' involvement in World War 2. As I stated earlier, we are all too familiar with the horrors and the hellish nature of the violence of war - not enough light is shed on the wonderful search and rescue teams who save lives, rather than end them. The heroes interviewed in the documentary throughout always make that fact clear: their goal was always to save the lives they can, never to kill anyone. We learn the backgrounds of these soldiers who put their lives on the line to save those who need saving, locate the lost, and rescue and bring to safety the dying. The narrator even mentions that his great uncle was involved in the mission that was the primary focus in the introduction of the film. Much of the film outlines events we might be familiar with, but ultimately it's to tell the stories that may have been untold to audiences like us - let alone to anyone outside of their immediate circles. Intertwined with historical events, the narrative is centered around those who were interviewed, their family and friends, and those who had lived to tell their tales. The film bounces back and forth between the documentary and the dramatic reenactments throughout the course of it, before ending with amazing stories which occurred just before the conclusion of the war. These stories are extraordinary and must be seen and heard to be believed.

The Documentary Portion

The documentary portion had to be my favorite part (parts) of the documentary. Again, the feature narrative portion of the film was effective, but it was truly astonishing to hear the stories told by the heroic veterans who lived it. The documentary portion is not only informative and educational, but it also becomes rather emotional once certain pivotal parts are reached. I rather enjoyed the educational bits of the documentary as I learned a lot. There is so much information provided throughout the course of the film, but we're never overwhelmed or bored with it. Once the documentary portion of the film begins, it's quite endearing to hear about the soldiers' civilian lives before they're either drafted or enlisted. This also gives them a sense of humanity, pathos, and sympathy/empathy (not that they wouldn't have it otherwise). Once we're in the thick of it, the historical events come in the context of the soldiers' lives and we're in it with them now. The interviews and the footage are intertwined nicely and neatly - and at a swift pace. The documentary moves at a brisk pace, which is a nice change of pace from the typical documentary. It's clear that the team behind the documentary put so much care and attention into it, and that they honored the veterans who served. They care about them and the stories they tell - and just as the crew owed a great deal to the veterans, we owe so much to them, too.

The Craft

I alluded to some of the craft earlier, but the craft on display here is quite impressive on so many levels. The editing is so clean and effective throughout. The writing and direction is so cohesive throughout, between both the dramatic narrative and documentary portions. As stated, the pacing is what really makes the documentary move so well. It's not so fast that we have whiplash and have a hard time following it, it's quick in the way that we are never bored and our attention won't drift away from the film. Most documentaries move too slowly to the point where I become bored and turn to my phone for help. This was never the case with Journey to Royal. As for the dramatic narrative portion, I was also impressed with the production design, practical effects, and the acting on display here. As stated, I'm sure the budget was not Marvel level (we should all be so lucky), and they did so well with what they had to work with. There were effects done with the bomber and backgrounds that it left me to wonder how they even pulled it off! I have to say, big ups to the production team here for their efforts. As a whole, they intertwined both forms of filmmaking as a hybrid so seamlessly and with such cohesion that it worked tremendously well. This is a testament to writer/director Christopher Johnson and Producer Mariana Tosca who oversaw the project from beginning, middle, to completion.

The Impact

This documentary feature hybrid left a lasting impact on me. The documentary was not only effective as an exercise in informing and educating, but also as an affecting piece of cinema. I learned a great deal about how and what goes on in rescue missions and all that goes into them. It's truly remarkable how many lives were saved from rescue missions of the like during the course of the war. To hear these stories from the mouths of those who sacrificed everything to bring their fellow soldiers home was on another level of the documentary viewing experience - it's difficult to put into words. What these heroes experienced is something they will not soon forget, and the same can be said for you if you watch this remarkably transcendent documentary. What amazed me the most was that not only did a PBY have to come in and transport the men who crashed in the ether of the ocean, but also that they had multiple vehicles such as a rescue submarine transport what men they could and carry them to safety. What an unbelievable journey these men experienced and these stories are unlike any you will ever hear on other documentaries or even dramatic portrayals of war through any visual medium.

The Verdict

Overall, this documentary narrative feature hybrid is a very well-made and incredibly effective piece of filmmaking that shines a light on unsung heroes from World War 2 that we and many of those involved are forever indebted to. The film seamlessly blends documentary and dramatic filmmaking into a cohesive narrative that educates, informs, and affects emotion. The craft on display is quite impressive in nearly every aspect of filmmaking and is worthy of such praise. The courageous men who were able to tell their stories here are truly legendary and remarkable figures and it's a delight to see and hear them on-screen. The film is incredibly compelling from start to finish and is impeccably paced, you will never avert your eyes for any reason until it comes to its amazing conclusion. Christopher Johnson and Mariana Tosca have crafted something truly special here and I commend them and their team for bringing these astonishing stories to life. It bears repeating that hearing stories of heroism and bravery like this are so much more rewarding than to be bludgeoned with the pervasive violence, horror, and hellish nightmares that war ultimately brings (this is not to take away from stories of this type). My point here is that it is profoundly heartwarming to hear stories about these valorous soldiers who gave their all so that others may live. These stories absolutely need to be heard by all, and for that reason and many others I cannot recommend this documentary enough.

 

Rating: Great

 

I was lucky enough to be able to view this documentary via private screener link on Vimeo. This documentary film will be made more readily available after February 2nd on a multitude of streaming platforms.

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By Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

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