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Film Review: “Apocalypse ’45” Beautifully Showcases the Horrors of War

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 4th, 2020

Film poster: “Apocalypse ’45”

Apocalypse ’45 (Erik Nelson, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Documentarian Erik Nelson has created numerous cinematic portraits of various aspects of World War II, the last one of which was the 2018 The Cold Blue, about the European theater of that conflict, specifically the combat in the air. Now, in Apocalypse ’45, he takes on the Pacific arena, culminating in the dropping of the two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that finally ended the war. As he did in the previous film, Nelson here showcases beautifully restored archival footage from the frontlines, some of it so vibrant that it looks as if from a more recent era. Unfortunately, this means that the charred and mangled bodies that are liberally on display are also quite visually present, splashed in vivid color across our retinas, bringing us as much into the carnage as were the marines who now, in their nineties, narrate the movie. If it is a bit much to handle, at times, it is nevertheless frequently riveting.

Though we do not see them until the end credits, the surviving veterans interviewed by Nelson are our guides through the narrative, their recounted experiences providing simultaneous point and counterpoint, depending on who is speaking, to what we see. Some feel proud to this day of what they did, while others remain, or have become, deeply troubled by their actions back then, whether they were fighter pilots, in bombers, or on the ground. They made it through, which means they killed, many of them many times. By turns, therefore, pleased and reflective – and really, men who have been sent into horrific combat situations have earned the right to express their opinions in their own ways – they offer a fascinating variety of thoughts on what they went through and what it meant. Nelson also includes the voice of Ittsei Nakagawa, 15 years old when we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, for good measure.

Avenger torpedo bomber from U.S.S Saginaw Bay in APOCALYPSE ’45. ©Discovery

To supplement these firsthand accounts, Nelson supplies additional information via on-screen interstitial text. The statistics on casualties, as well as battle dates, are helpful, but towards the end this technique appears a little too strongly editorial in its push to have the viewer accept the inevitability of the atomic bomb. Apocalypse ’45 would be much stronger were the images and voices, alone, allowed to tell the story, since the men eventually, themselves, address the nuclear catastrophe visited upon their erstwhile enemy. Nelson redeems himself with final title cards that emphasize the mixed reactions, to this day, towards what the United States did, but by then we have already been pushed to accept the notion that there were very few other options and that the war might have continued until 1948 without the bombs. Maybe, maybe not, but better to allow for the complexities that exist without this textual influence.

Overall, however, this is a powerful, moving work, transporting us into the battles in the air, on land and on sea with grim immediacy. Beyond Nelson, we have the many combat photographers, to whom the film is dedicated, to thank, as without them (credited via the plethora of filmed slates that Nelson leaves in), our historical knowledge would be that much poorer. As brave as the marines they followed, they risked their lives for the sake of documentary truth. We honor them, and Nelson for presenting their remastered images, as we watch this material, however brutal it may be, with the reverence it is due.

Scene from lost John Ford film footage, Pearl Harbor, April 1942, in APOCALYPSE ’45 ©Discovery

[Apocalypse ’45 opened in virtual theaters on August 14, 2020, and is coming to Disovery soon.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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