6 Best Historical Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

This is an amazing documentary but be warned, the main character has some weird characteristics.

By coincidence, an art collector stumbles upon an undiscovered collection of sculptures and paintings that can only be described as the work of a genius. There was almost no reference to the artist, but upon research the collector finds that they are by a man called Stanislav Szukalski. He traces him down and finally locates him living anonymously in a California suburb. 

The documentary, Struggle: The Life And Lost Art Of Szukalski, is a collection of tapes from numerous interviews in the 1980s between the collector and Szukalski. He was helped by George DiCaprio, who would later produce this movie with his son Leonardo (!). 

In these interviews it becomes clear that Szukalski is pure genius. The funny thing is that he seemed to be well aware of this fact himself. 

Remember the weird characteristics I mentioned in that first sentence? Here we go. Szukalski’s past is full of a lot of antisemitism, sexism and bigotry. 

The question that lingers is how exactly can this forgotten-genius story be reshaped by the discovery of his twisted opinions. Can the artist be separated from the art? It’s a personal matter for the people who found Szukalski and later made this movie. It might never get as personal for you, but this movie will sure try to provoke an answer.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Gabriel Bartalos, George DiCaprio, Glenn Bray, James Kagel, Nick Tate, Rebecca Forstadt, Robert Williams, Stanislav Szukalski, Suzanne Williams, Timothy Snyder

Director: Irek Dobrowolski, Ireneusz Dobrowolski

Rating: TV-MA

What makes Apollo 11 stand out is its sharp minimalist approach, allowing the archival footage of the mission to the moon to speak for itself. It’s stunning to think that at one point or another we had collectively seen a bulk of the footage in this film, and yet somehow let it lay dormant until the moon landing had been reduced to black and white stills in our collective imaginations. Not only does this film reinvigorate the moon landing with the power that it once held, but it does so in a way that is more thrilling than anything the Marvel CGI wizards could muster. The vibrant score adds a layer of ferocious tension, while the breakneck pace gives the feel of a rollercoaster ride. If there is any fault to find here, it is most definitely with the film’s MAGA style yearning for a time and place that never existed. Spare us the teary-eyed patriotism and the clips of Nixon, a disgraceful criminal, and vile racist, yammering on about the world becoming one. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic example of why most biopics should just be documentaries and why the fanatical fear of spoilers is a tad silly. Spoiler alert: they land on the moon.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History

Actor: Andy Aldrin, Bill Anders, Bruce McCandless II, Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke, Deke Slayton, Gene Kranz, Janet Armstrong, Jim Lovell, John F. Kennedy, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, Patricia Mary Finnegan, Todd Douglas Miller, Walter Cronkite

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Rating: G

As its title suggests, Steve James’ documentary isn’t shy about its sympathy for its subject. Physicist Ted Hall was just 18 when he was recruited to the Manhattan Project and underwent a crisis of conscience when it became apparent that the atomic bomb’s ostensible target — Nazi Germany — was on the brink of defeat. Concerned by the possibility that, post-WW2, the US would achieve a nuclear monopoly and become a new kind of imperialist power, Ted and friend Saville Sax leaked key information to the USSR.

James’ film takes a decidedly intimate approach: while it dips into archival interviews Ted gave before his death and provides background context via scholars, it’s mostly led by Ted’s wife Joan, a spirited interviewee. Her moving contributions expand the film’s scope, making it as much a portrait of a marriage as a study of the political impact his actions had. James also interviews their children — as well as those of his partner-in-espionage, Saville — to explore the conflicted personal legacy their actions left. In not limiting itself to a macro perspective, the film opens itself up to be more than a look in history’s dusty rear-view mirror, making it a welcome tonic to the Wikipedia-style approach commonly employed for subjects like this.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Ann Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Joseph Stalin, Mickey O'Sullivan, Theodore Hall, Walter Huston

Director: Steve James

, 2016

The unbelievable true story the first mass-shootings in America, and a documentary made with so much attention that it is almost impossible to forget. The animations might put you off if you watch the trailer, but they are what makes this movie so amazing. Added to old tapes and current statements from survivors and heroes, they perfectly fill the gaps in the enactment of what happened. An equally sad, gripping and incredibly well-made work on an event that happened 50 years ago and to which there are still no solutions.

Genre: Animation, Crime, Documentary

Actor: Aldo Ordonez, Blair Jackson, Chris Doubek, John Fitch, Josephine McAdam, Louie Arnette, Monty Muir, Rebecca Beegle, Reece Everett Ryan, Steve Eckelman, Vicky Illk, Violett Beane

Director: Keith Maitland

Rating: TV-14

A beautiful, poetic and disturbing ode to the waters of the Chilean archipelago from the perspective of the stars and planets, its Indigenous inhabitants, and the bodies of those who were disappeared into it under the Pinochet regime. As Patricio Guzman tells us and shows us, water has a memory and a voice. The opening sequence is like Salgado's "Genesis" photos but in colour and moving on the screen, absolutely breathtaking.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adil Brkovic, Gabriel Salazar, Gabriela Paterito, Patricio Guzman, Raul Zurita

Director: Patricio Guzmán

Rating: N/A