‘Apocalypse ’45’ Review: Graphic Images of Wartime

At one point in “Apocalypse ’45,” the camera gazes over Tokyo from an American military bomber as the plane ejects a cluster of cylinders. For several beats, the bombs disappear into the air. Then we see the explosions: tiny bursts of orange far below.

Startling images appear throughout “Apocalypse ’45,” a transfixing documentary that depicts the final months of World War II in rare detail. The film (streaming on Discovery+) combines vivid archival footage from war reporters with the accounts of an array of veterans. Its project is to immerse us in the horrors of warfare, and to convey the ways its witnesses cope with war’s psychic toll.

The images, taken from digitally-restored film reels that sat in the National Archives for decades, are disturbingly graphic. A Japanese woman steps off a cliff in the Mariana Islands to avoid being taken hostage. Soldiers on Iwo Jima shoot flamethrowers into caves. Planes piloted by kamikaze plunge into ships near Okinawa. The director Erik Nelson adds realistic wartime sound effects to the silent footage, achieving an unsettling verisimilitude.

But the veterans, whose candid testimonies are interwoven in voice over, are the movie’s shrewdest addition. Notably, Nelson declines to distinguish among the men, and instead patchworks their deep, breathy voices into sonic wallpaper. Without faces or names, their remarks cannot be individually condemned or celebrated. Rather, they blend into a collective, showcasing how people seek out myths — about war’s inevitability, Japanese conformity, or American might — to find reason where there may be none.

When it comes to representing non-American experiences, the documentary is less equipped. Nelson calls on only one Japanese interviewee, a survivor of Hiroshima. His voice opens the documentary, and reappears later on to describe the atom bomb attack. The survivor’s perspective is vital, but offered alone, its inclusion feels perfunctory. “Apocalypse ’45” knows that war is hell for everyone. But it’s difficult to escape the sense that, in this film’s view of history, America is top of mind.

Apocalypse ’45
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Watch on Discovery+.

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