Most of the time, I view films as sources of entertainment. Other times, I view them as vehicles of information. Below are some of the best documentaries I've seen in terms of not just content but method of conveying that content, especially when the content is dense, controversial, or darkOf course, there are fictional films, historical dramas, etc. that also engage viewers on complex problems, but I stick to documentaries in this post.. The documentaries below specifically address various issues that are unique to the United States, or repeatedly enter mainstream discussion.
My list is by no means complete, but I hope at the very least that anyone watching one of these documentaries gains a deeper and broader view on the issue of interest.
On the military
The American military is involved, in one capacity or another, in most major conflicts around the world, whether it be engaging in military exercises with South Korea, or sending special operation forces into Syria. While the military does many good things for American and international security, there are plenty of serious criticisms and problems that need to be addressed. The documentaries here look at two such serious problems.
The Kill Team
Under international law regarding war, civilians are to be protected during wartime or any conflict. This documentary looks at war crimes committed by members of the US Army in Afghanistan (warning: Wikipedia page contains graphic images) during their tours there. The documentary is very difficult to watch as it shows graphic photographic evidence of the perpetrators' crimes. It's also frustrating to watch because we see how the perpetrators use intimidation to suppress the voice of the one member in the squad who had a guilty enough conscience to bring these crimes to light.
If anything, the film shows how us-versus-them narratives can reify in the places where they definitely shouldn't, because of the tragic outcomes for innocent civilians.
The Invisible War
This is another hard-to-watch documentary. The film illustrates the hidden pandemic of rape and sexual assault within the military by providing firsthand testimony from victims, along with incredible investigative work on how internal military courts, often overseen by commanders who are not impartial, work against bringing justice. In addition to their documentary work, the film's producers have a campaign dedicated to bringing help to victims. Finally, the film moved some high level officials to act, most notably former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Barack Obama.
On income inequality
From the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street to the waning days of Bernie Sanders' campaign, income inequality has been arguably the most discussed domestic issue. I only have one recommendation on it so far.
Inequality for All
This documentary takes a Freakonomics-esque approach to explaining how income inequality will not only hurt the US economy, but how it has already done so in the past. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is the narrator and teacher. In between his simple but fairly detailed explanations, he provides his own personal and political commentary which is also interesting to watch.
Now, when talking about economics along with politics, you can always find an economist to support a certain politics. When the message is, put simply, that income inequality is bad, Reich is the economist to communicate that message. Reich is also an enthusiastic supporter of Bernie Sanders. With those biases in mind, I still believe this documentary is worth watching. It can be viewed online here.
On information technology
The following two documentaries are some of my favorite ever, not only because of the domain, but because I feel they were really made for every American to see, not just the technologically or legally-savvy.
I remember the first scene of this documentary. The dark tunnel. The narration of Snowden's messages. The opening had such a cinematic quality. If I didn't know I was watching a documentary, I would've believed I was watching some deleted scene from The Bourne Identity. The film is filled with more of these elements, but it has a quality that beats most espionage movies—it's real. The film touches on privacy, surveillance, and the challenges faced my those part of the fourth estate who find themselves on the US government's bad side.
The film primarily follows Edward Snowden's journey from his residence in Hong Kong during the early days of his revelations hitting the mainstream, to his current situation of living in Russia with his girlfriend. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist that broke the news of US mass surveillance to the world; William Binney, former American cryptographer-turned-whistleblower; and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, all make appearances.
The Internet's Own Boy
In January 2013, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn. The death was ruled a suicide. This documentary traces Swartz's life from his precocious days to his Internet activist pursuits to the brutal legal battle that eventually led to his death. As his life is told on screen, one also gets insight into a number of under-the-radar problems: restrictions on access to scientific knowledge, congressional support for pro-censorship policies, unnecessarily severe judicial prosecution, and more.
This film is more legal than technical. For some people, this may make them more hesitant to watch. But even with all the legalese surrounding copyright, censorship, and the like (which the film does a great job at navigating), it's an emotional roller coaster. Over the course of watching it, I felt uplifted, frustrated, informed, and devastated. You can watch it here, gratis.
Here's a short list of other documentaries that I believe are worth watching. Issues covered include immigration reform, health and obesity, and general public policy.
Food Inc: Big Food has a lot in common with Big Media, apparently.
Immigration Battle: After watching this, a more appropriate title would be Immigration Stalemate.
The Fog of War: 11 lessons learned from warfare of the 20th century for those of the 21st.
Super Size Me: What's the worst that can happen when you only eat McDonald's for a month?
Where to Invade Next: Look at all the nice things we could have!