THE COLD BLUE

review by peter horan

Archival footage from HBO’s  The Cold Blue  documentary.

Archival footage from HBO’s The Cold Blue documentary.

Hot on the heels of George Clooney’s Catch-22 comes another examination of the US bombing campaigns during World War II. Despite its mutual fixation with the air, however, The Cold Blue is a far more grounded affair than its satirical counterpoint. Produced by HBO and directed by Erik Nelson (a frequent collaborator of Werner Herzog), this documentary tracks the fortunes of the United States 8th Air Force, along with the history of the B-17 aircraft, as they carry out some of the most dangerous missions of the Second World War. 

In a move which gives new meaning to the phrase “found footage”, the film is constructed almost entirely from reels of raw, colour footage shot by William Wyler (the Oscar-winning filmmaker who would go on to direct Ben-Hur and Roman Holiday) for his 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Nelson discovered these deep in the vaults of the US National Archives. Blurred and discoloured, he set about restoring the footage using cutting-edge, 4K technology and the result, on a visual level, is undeniably impressive. The film bypasses the typical, “talking heads” approach of many a military-history documentary to instead foreground the restored image, supplemented by audio-snippets from surviving pilots, and is all the better for it. So sharp is the imagery that you find yourself questioning whether the footage is, in fact, re-creation, rather than restoration. The immediacy that this lends the film is undoubtedly its biggest strength, with the cinematography feeling decidedly before-its-time; the real-time footage of dropping bombs and streaking contrails brings the likes of Dr. Strangelove and Dunkirk to mind.    

Perhaps it is because Wyler’s film had a propagandist function and he sought to shield the viewer from the pilots’ distress but, bar a spattering of shots showing wounded soldiers being hauled into hospital trucks, there is a notable lack of footage which adequately conveys the mental and physical toil of the war.

While its technical and visual scope impresses, the film is less effective on a human level. There are fitfully-engaging anecdotes as the pilots recall their pre-flight superstitions (real eggs rather than the powdered variety were saved for the mornings before precarious missions) and in-flight horror stories (one pilot had his fingers amputated after they froze to the plexiglass window of his plane). It is only towards the documentary’s conclusion, however, that the toll of war is thoroughly explored as the camera sweeps through the decimated landscape of wartime Berlin. Perhaps it is because Wyler’s film had a propagandist function and he sought to shield the viewer from the pilots’ distress but, bar a spattering of shots showing wounded soldiers being hauled into hospital trucks, there is a notable lack of footage which adequately conveys the mental and physical toil of the war.

Instead, Nelson chooses to fetishize the aircraft itself, dedicating vast sums of the running time to the discussion and exhibition of its mechanics. While this may be lapped up by the military-history nut, it is hardly compelling for the average cinema-goer. A truly impressive spectacle which lacks the emotional punch to match it.  

The Cold Blue is now available to view on HBO.com.