9 Best Movies to Watch From National Geographic Documentary Films

Staff & contributors

Fire of Love is a documentary that follows Maurice and Katia Krafft, a scientist couple who’ve dedicated their entire professional lives to studying (and marveling at) volcanoes. The two met at university and have been inseparable ever since, chasing explosions around the world until their death at the Mount Unzen eruption in 1991. 

The fiery passion the title refers to is as much about Maurice and Katia as it is about their dedication to volcanoes. Like any love story, it tracks how they were first wonderstruck by the formation and how that awe shaped their lives and led them to each other, as well as how they came to discover hard truths about it and dealt with the heartbreak that soon followed. 

Combining the breathtaking footage the couple left behind with lovely writing and artful animation, director Sara Dosa creates a moving documentary about passion, adventure, and the world itself. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Alka Balbir, Guillaume Tremblay, Katia Krafft, Maurice Krafft, Miranda July

Director: Sara Dosa

Rating: PG

Focusing squarely on two families and a select few health workers, The First Wave gets intimate access to the fears and anxieties of individuals trying to contend with the effects of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in New York. That these characters also tend to belong to already vulnerable sectors in the United States isn't a superfluous detail—as director Matthew Heineman illustrates (without the use of detached talking heads interviews) how proper responses to a global pandemic like this one are still hampered by capitalist interests, and racist and xenophobic institutions built into American society. All of these obstacles make every setback and every moment of progress in these characters' lives feel absolutely crucial, making for an emotionally overwhelming experience.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Al Sharpton, Andrew Cuomo

Director: Matthew Heineman

In this documentary about John Allen Chau — the American Christian missionary reportedly killed when he tried to preach the Gospel to one of the last uncontacted groups in the world — a participant muses about the “fine line between faith and madness.” The hazy border where one ends and the other begins is the focus of this doc, and it makes for a fascinating challenge of audience’s open-mindedness.

The film presents Chau’s perspective through scattered interviews with friends and readings of the diary he left behind, but it also features interviews with surviving, persistent adherents of the same radical evangelicalism that inspired Chau to preach the Gospel to the North Sentinelese people (something he believed was a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus). The filmmakers treat these highly controversial perspectives with a light touch, never explicitly challenging Chau’s peers, but strong balance is provided via the voices of vehement opponents of this ideology. Providing equal weighting to both sides is an unusually hands-off approach, one that might easily be misread as tacit approval from the filmmakers. Ultimately, though, anyone watching this with an open mind will still come to the same moral conclusion — you’ll just be better informed about it.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dan Davis, Daniel Everett, David Shih, Lawrence Kao, Levi Davis, Pam Arlund

Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss

Rating: PG-13

Alex Honnold might not be the most relatable guy ever, but his obsession with free solo climbing and his single-minded approach to life makes him so interesting. He's precisely the type of person that chooses to follow his goals, at the expense of everything else. To a certain extent, he has to be — without whole-hearted commitment to the sport, he could literally die. It’s no wonder someone decided to document his climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan wall—a wall that’s 3,000 feet high and hasn’t been free-climbed alone before. The journey is visually stunning and a technical marvel in and of itself. However, what’s most memorable about this film is the character study of Honnold: he has an indescribable instinct that outsiders could only call a death wish. His emotional detachment might make this a frustrating film to watch, but Free Solo serves as a unique portrait of a man who spits at the face of death.

Genre: Adventure, Documentary, Drama

Actor: Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Rating: PG-13

Surprisingly dramatic for a documentary but without exoticizing its central characters for a privileged audience, The Territory is that rare film that rightfully portrays indigenous peoples as living firmly in the present. In their continuing struggle to protect their land and culture, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people of the Amazon may be vulnerable, but they aren't helpless. They're organized, have access to technology, and know exactly how they want to represent themselves—armed with bows and arrows and defending what's theirs in beautiful, thrilling footage. In this way, even as The Territory ultimately touches on issues that have affected all of Brazil, namely the destructive effects of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency, it still feels like a documentary co-authored by these indigenous people themselves.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau

Director: Alex Pritz

Science Fair is simultaneously a feel-good documentary and a feel-bad one: while inspiring and reassuring for all the brilliant young minds it spotlights, it also has the potential to make your own life accomplishments look paltry in comparison. The former effect is the strongest, though — because you can’t watch high schoolers as young as 14 present pioneering, disease-curing research and inventions and not feel like the future is in good hands.

Science Fair is light on the actual science, which makes it an accessible watch and prevents the film’s focus from mimicking the cutthroat nature of ISEF, the international competition it follows. With a grand prize of $75k and lots of college application-boosting medals up for grabs, the competition amongst the kids is fierce, but Science Fair instead takes an empathetic, celebratory approach so that all of the kids feel like deserved winners. That’s especially true of the more disadvantaged teens: though the competition itself might not take into account all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome even just to get in the room, this compassionate doc definitely does. Even if the science is all Greek to you, it’s impossible not to appreciate and be moved by the determination and resilience of these kids.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

Rating: PG

Like many American narratives, the history of space exploration is rife with long-buried secrets that are finally coming to the surface. The Space Race is an attempt to collect those secrets and weave a fresh new history that finally celebrates the heroes we should’ve learned about years ago. There are interviews with the likes of space pioneer Ed Dwight (who is responsible for unforgettable lines like “I’m not part of history, but a mystery” and “I had the capability, but not the opportunity) and the first Black man to fly into space, Guion Bluford, as well as surprising information about confidential test pilots, political involvement, and the undeniable influence of Afrofuturistic art and media in the field. But education aside, what gives the documentary an edge is that it’s not afraid to question and at times attack NASA and the government for their racist past. We see celebrated astronaut Victor Glover reconcile his loyalty to his nation with his anger over the murder of George Floyd, for instance. At the same time, others like Dwight wanted to “just talk about space, not the struggle” but were tokenized both by the government and the opposition for their gains. Despite its compact run time, The Space Race covers all these nuances and more to provide a richly detailed and lovingly told new history of space exploration in America.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Charles Bolden, Ed Dwight Jr., Guion Bluford

Director: Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Lisa Cortés

Rating: PG-13

 As a result of the miraculous success of the famed Tham Luang cave rescue, which saw the return of 12 kids trapped in a cave for more than 15 days, you’ll find no shortage of documentaries about the mission. Some take the point of view of the children, even others the locals and loved ones. But National Geographic’s The Rescue largely focuses on the volunteer rescuers, all of whom were foreigners who flew from different parts of the globe to risk their lives for the young victims. The film dives into their personal lives and their psyches, even going so far as their childhood to explain the motivations behind the heroic decisions they made at that moment. In less deft hands, The Rescue might seem like yet another White Savior Complex story, but directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (the same creative couple behind the Oscar-winning doc Free Solo) prove that the divers’ expertise, skill, and personal stakes make for a story worth telling.   

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Anan Surawan, Chris Jewell, Craig Challen, Derek Anderson, Jason Mallinson, Jim Warny, John Volanthen, Josh Morris, Mikko Paasi, Mitch Torrel, Richard Harris, Rick Stanton, Siriporn Bangnoen, Somsak Kanakam, Thanet Natisri

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Rating: PG

Retrograde takes place in early 2021 and captures the exact moment when the US troops exited Afghanistan, effectively leading to the Taliban takeover. With a fly-on-the-look approach, director Matthew Heineman reveals the cruel consequences of this sudden exit as the Afghan people (led by the charismatic General Sammi Sadat) scramble to defend themselves despite limited means and support. In this documentary, we're privy to tactical military planning, civilian chaos, and even official Taliban gatherings. 

It’s heartbreaking and chilling, another reminder of the human cost of war and the terrible need for genuine peace. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History, War

Director: Matthew Heineman