If Pauline Kael’s widely contested dismissal of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah taught us anything, it’s that certain nonfiction subjects inspire too much reverence to criticize openly. Critics were less averse to slamming a fiction feature about the same events (when Schindler’s List was released in 1993, many did so freely), but Kael’s perceived lack of respect for an authentic document about the Holocaust and its survivors was considered inexcusable. I mention this because Junichi Suzuki’s MIS: Human Secret Weapon, a new documentary about Japanese American soldiers serving overseas during WWII, concerns a subject that necessitates a degree of respect and sensitivity that makes it difficult to stress how bad it is.
For much of its running time, the film is intensely boring, and yet there seems to be something vaguely callous about admitting to that. Is it wrong to find a film composed of interviews with aging Japanese American war veterans tiresome, or to find their stories insufficiently compelling? This is hardly the fault of the veterans (almost all of the men interviewed are in their mid 90s, and most aren’t exactly eloquent), but surely it’s the responsibility of the filmmakers to sculpt their material into something more lucid and engaging, especially when the nature of the content is so culturally and historically significant.
I’ve no doubt that the history in question is worth investigating at length, but the documentary offers nothing more than a cursory account of its factual basis, which is about as engaging and insightful as a Wikipedia entry. That those with firsthand experience are afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves is valuable, at least in theory, but the power of authentic testimony just isn’t enough to validate the project.
It may strive to be an earnest historical document, but as a work of cinema one can’t ignore the fact that it’s ineptly assembled: weepy, sentimental strings drown out dialogue; far too many anecdotes are allowed to meander pointlessly without being edited down to coherence; and, most egregiously, cuts to extreme close-ups of teary eyes every time a veteran cries during an interview, which qualifies as exploitation of the worst kind.
Again, there’s a sense in which these sorts of criticisms seem uncaring, because the absolute seriousness what the veterans have to say—stories of racial discrimination, wartime hardships, frontline brushes with violence and death—makes aesthetic considerations sound insignificant and petty by comparison. These men lived through war fighting for a country that hated them and are still around to talk about it. I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to speak out, but that puts a lot of pressure on the filmmakers to deliver a film that’s strong enough to support the weight of their shared experience, and MIS: Human Secret Weapon isn’t up to the task.