Truth, art & propaganda: Lessons from Mark Harris’s WWII epic for Netflix

Director William Wyler. Photo courtesy of Netflix. text

Eight years ago, Mark Harris began research on his second book. It would tell the story of five Hollywood film directors who left behind families and careers to join the fight in World War II as propagandists for the US government. When Five Came Back published in 2014, Steven Spielberg, Scott Rudin, and Barry Diller snapped up the film rights, and Harris began work on a documentary adaptation. The resulting three-part Netflix series premiers on the service today.

Culture has long been political, but with a former reality show host now in the White House, the two spheres have become deeply entwined. At 53, having been an entertainment reporter and cultural critic for more than 30 years, Harris occupies an important niche in critiquing the cultural phenomenon of America’s new president. “[Mark is] positioned to understand Donald Trump as well or better than anybody alive,” says David Hajdu, a former colleague of Harris’s and a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “He understands celebrity, understands performance, understands power, understands art. And that’s what Donald Trump’s all about.”

In a January column for New York magazine, Harris provided the clearest analysis yet of Trump’s relationship with the media, putting Trump’s ability to “cajole with one hand while the other closes into a fist” into context that stretches back to the early 2000s, when Trump remade himself as a celebrity via a TV show and a string of best-selling books. “[Mark] knows where the bodies are buried, and knows the history, and has all those different threads of political knowledge, pop culture knowledge, analytical thinking, reporting, and can weave them into a really strong rope that can hold an entire argument,” says Dan Fierman, vice president and editorial director of MTV News, who once worked for Harris.

It’s this combination of skills that Harris brought to Five Came Back to illuminate an untold chapter in Hollywood history. One that holds lessons for people across the political spectrum about truth, art, propaganda, and the lengths people will go to, and in some cases shouldn’t go to, when they believe Western civilization is at stake.

 

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On a chilly afternoon at the tail end of winter, the day after New York was swept by an unseasonable blizzard, Harris sits in a cafe close to his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. The snow is piled up on the sidewalk outside, but inside it’s warm, and Harris, dressed casually in a black sweater, sips on peppermint tea. He is relaxed and thoughtful as he reflects on Five Came Back.

Harris was born and raised in New York. His mother was a radiologist, his father a lawyer and World War II veteran who died from heart disease when Harris was a teen. His younger brother, David Harris, is an attorney in New York. Growing up, Harris watched “a ton of TV,” he says, but harbored a love of film in particular. He graduated from Yale in ‘85 as an English major, but took every film class that was offered. Early on, Harris debated whether to try and go into the movie business and become a screenwriter, or to pursue his passion for film by writing about it as a journalist. Journalism won out, and right out of college Harris got a job writing TV listings for a syndicated newspaper column. “I’m one of those strange people who kind of knew what I wanted to do pretty early,” he says.

 

Mark Harris

Mark Harris

In 1989, Harris joined Entertainment Weekly, three months before the magazine launched. He would spend the next decade and a half there, first as a writer, then as an editor, and eventually an executive editor. Even though it was wrapped in a celebrity-obsessed shell, Entertainment Weekly quickly gained a reputation for intelligent writing that pushed boundaries and broke new ground, and much of that was thanks to Harris.

“Mark understands the importance of pop culture, not as an add-on, but as a direct expression of how we’re living everyday,” says Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly’s longtime film critic and a close friend of Harris. “One of the strengths of Entertainment Weekly in its heyday was that it was able to take even what is the most quote, ‘trivial,’ subject and make it smart.”

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Harris met Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who wrote Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, at the birthday party of a friend in 1998. They went on a date soon afterwards, and have been together ever since. “That is a match of brilliant minds,” says Schwarzbaum, who describes holding one pole of the chuppah at Harris and Kushner’s wedding as one of her proudest moments. The 2003 commitment ceremony, which was held at an Italian restaurant near Columbus Circle, was the first same-sex partnership to be featured in the Vows column of The New York Times. The pair were legally married in Massachusetts in 2008.

Kushner recalls Harris telling him in the early days of their relationship that success is a character test. “I thought, that’s a very smart way to look at it,” he says. “It’s not a great big lollipop that you get handed. It’s not a mark of God’s preference and grace. You haven’t been elected to some sort of company of saints. It’s a test. Are you going to be able to handle it?”

Fierman, one of the young writers on staff at Entertainment Weekly whom Harris nurtured, says Harris raised him from a wolf cub. “Everything I learned about journalism, about New York media, even basic things like how to conduct oneself in the office as an adult, I learned from Mark Harris. You know when people say you owe somebody your career? I do.” Harris is the person Fierman calls when he’s having an internal ethical journalism debate. “He has unparalleled judgement,” he says.

Once, when he was working on a cover story for Harris about the Eminem film Eight Mile, Fierman recalls learning, in the middle of his story, that Zadie Smith was doing a competing cover story for Vibe. “I panicked, as one does when one is up against Zadie fucking Smith,” says Fierman. “And I’ll never forget what Mark said to me. He said, ‘Yes, of course, she’s the best writer of her generation maybe, but you are a better reporter than she is.”

Schwarzbaum says Harris is still the person she wants to do the first read of her writing, even years after they stopped working together, while Fierman describes him as simply the best editor he’s ever had—someone who could see through the bullshit in a piece immediately. “I remember him sitting down once and being like, ‘I see exactly what you did here. You built a Jenga tower so I can’t take out any of these sentences, which you don’t need, without destroying the whole thing. Just rewrite it.’”

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Eventually Harris left editing behind to turn his attention back to writing full-time. His freelance work showcases the breadth of his interests: from delightfully snarky recaps of Project Runway for Entertainment Weekly, to essays on the state of the film industry for GQ, and reported long reads on the cultural significance of institutions like Bellevue Hospital for New York magazine. Harris’s strengths as a writer stem from an almost unfathomable knowledge of pop culture, a sharp and perceptive take on the everyday, and a humorous, conversational style that makes the complicated simple. “He seems to know everything that he was ever exposed to and he retains it,” says Hajdu.

Following a desire to write long and write historical, Harris chose the subject of his first book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, about the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture of 1967, because it was a period of movies he was passionate about. With Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, he took the opposite tack, choosing a subject that he had spent his life avoiding. “My father was a World War II veteran,” he says. “He died when I was young, but even when I was little I was aware that I was not listening to his war stories, and was kind of alienated by them, and frightened by them.” As a happy kid in the 1970s, Harris couldn’t imagine a world where a 17 year old would go off to war. “It just felt like, why would anybody do that?” he says. Harris set out to answer that question.

The project required that Harris absorb and synthesize huge swaths of history—taking in culture, politics, ethics—and then weave it into a narrative. “He gets deep into it, says Schwarzbaum. “You have to kind of tap on his shoulders and say, you know, Get a breath of air now.”

Harris narrowed his scope to focus on the personal journeys of five directors who put their careers on hold to serve: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. Through these men, Harris touches on many of the most significant turning points in the war, including the battle of Midway, the D-Day landings, the liberation of France, and the horrors of Dachau. Harris brings the characters to life, uncovering their motivations, their aspirations, their internal conflicts, and, ultimately, the effect the war had on their lives, their films, and the Hollywood tradition.

Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

“World War II marked the government’s first attempt at a sustained program of filmed propaganda,” Harris writes in the book, “and its use of Hollywood filmmakers to explain its objectives, tout its successes, and shape the war as a narrative for both civilians and soldiers constituted a remarkable, even radical experiment.”

Prior to Pearl Harbor, the political sphere was divided, and there were stirrings of isolationism, anti-war passion, anti-Hollywood rhetoric, and anti-Semitism in the air. There was also bipartisan concern about the potential pitfalls of government involvement with Hollywood. “All across the political spectrum people understood the danger of too much government intervention in content,” says Harris, “and that, I think, is a lesson that can’t be learned enough.”

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Adapting the book to the screen took three years, relatively speedy for Hollywood. Essentially a documentary about documentary filmmaking, the process highlighted for Harris the ethical challenges that the protagonists of Five Came Back likely encountered during the war. “There are many ways to be inaccurate in a documentary,” he says. “You can be inaccurate by accident, you can be inaccurate by omission, you can be inaccurate by oversimplification, you can even be inaccurate by over-emphasizing one thing at the expense of a bunch of other things.”

The film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau, and editor, Will Znidaric, shared Harris’s commitment to accuracy. They watched more than 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage, 40 documentaries and training films, some 50 Hollywood studio films, hours of outtakes and raw footage from war films, plus material from official libraries and personal collections. Bouzereau also brought in some of Hollywood’s best contemporary directors and interviewed them about the World War II work: Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass and Guillermo del Toro.

Like the book, the series follows the chronological arc of the war and interweaves the experiences of the filmmakers, from their recognition of Nazi Germany as a force to be resisted, and their anticipation of adventure when they first signed up to fight, to their eventual disillusionment once confronted with the horrors of war. Over that period, the five men walked a blurry line between fact and fiction. Huston, at the behest of the war department, staged a battle for his film The Battle for San Pietro; Stevens recreated scenes while filming the German surrender of France; Capra’s film Know Your Enemy: Japan was essentially a hate film that conveys an intensely racist message.

Despite their flaws, the films produced by these directors, often at great risk to their lives, were how Americans experienced the war at home. The footage Ford and Stevens captured on the shores of Normandy on D-Day, and films like The Battle of Midway and Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, helped people to see the human face of war, and understand its immense cost. Harris is sensitive to the moral nuance involved, but says that “even flawed communication is better than a complete lack.” He adds, “The camera can lie, but the camera can also tell a kind of truth that the person operating the camera is not even aware of.”

John Ford shooting WWII propaganda. Photo courtesy Netflix.

John Ford shooting WWII propaganda. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Harris points out how complicated it is to condemn Stevens for recreating the scene of the German surrender, which took place in a space that was so underlit it was impossible to capture. “It seems preposterous, in a way, for a filmmaker to say to a general, Surrender again. And yet, I understand the impulse,” he says. “Stevens knew that he was filming an incredibly important moment of history and he wanted to make absolutely sure it was seen.”

The most moving part of the series depicts Stevens’ time in Dachau. Confronted with the reality of a Nazi extermination camp, Stevens took seriously the responsibility of documenting the scenes he encountered there. An archival audio recording of Stevens reflecting on what he felt in the moment is overlaid with the footage that he and his men filmed. Against the cold, stark landscape of southern Germany, hundreds of skeletal bodies are piled up. There are shots of empty train carriages, gaunt prisoners on stretchers who will soon die from hunger, and the liberated, who stare at the camera without hope. “I think the strongest feeling I ever had in my life was the horror, and the revulsion, and the exposure to things I couldn’t believe was part of human existence,” he says, “the violence and wickedness that took place in those concentration camps.”

“He really does completely understand that the camera is a witness, and that that is his highest purpose in that moment,” says Harris. What he encountered in Dachau wounded Stevens in ways that he would never fully recover from. Previously known for lighter film fare, such as The More the Merrier, after he returned from the war Stevens never made another comedy. The two documentaries he shot at Dachau were used as evidence in the War Criminals trial at Nuremberg in 1945.

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Harris is cognizant of the fact that he has spent more time on Five Came Back than World War II lasted. Today, it’s hard to imagine a group of Hollywood filmmakers colluding with the Trump administration to advance a narrative that serves the government’s agenda. Yet, Harris says the current tenor of that relationship—where Trump accuses Hollywood of being liberal elites out of touch with the “real America,” and they accuse him of stoking prejudice and bigotry—echoes some of the sentiment in the country immediately prior to World War II.

If there’s a lesson to be found in the series, it’s the importance of holding those who go astray to account. “A journalist’s primary loyalty should be toward truth,” says Harris. “If someone is trying to thwart you from telling the truth, you have no responsibility to that person’s falsehood.” In the series, Greengrass, the director of United 93 and Captain Phillips, puts it another way: “When you strip away all the glitz and the glamor of Hollywood, what you’re left with is, What is the witness that you’re giving to the world that you see out there?

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Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.