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It feels downright unpatriotic to criticize Until They Are Home, a well-meaning but pedestrian documentary that deals with gut-wrenching subject matter. Steven C. Barber’s film concerns the stirring mission of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command—JPAC for short—to retrieve the bodies of hundreds of American servicemen killed in the Battle of Tarawa in 1943, representing one of the bloodiest skirmishes of World War II.
More than 1,000 soldiers were killed in the struggle, which happened so quickly that they were buried in mass graves that were eventually lost as the area was developed over the ensuing years. Despite the heroic efforts of JPAC chronicled in the film, more than 500 are still unaccounted for.
Combining often grisly archival footage–much of it photographed by Marine photographer Norman Hatch, whose images were seen in the 1945 Oscar winning short With the Marines at Tarawa—with contemporary interviews and footage of the JPAC team at work, the film vividly conveys the heartbreaking and frustrating efforts to bring the soldiers’ remains to rest at home.
Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t do full justice to its subject matter, and has the feel of something more suited to the History Channel than the big screen. Even with its scant 66 minute running time, it feels overextended and diffuse.
Narrated in properly stentorian tones by Kelsey Grammer, the film also poignantly represents the last screen appearance by the late Eddie Albert, who as revealed here distinguished himself with his bravery during the battle. Seen in an interview conducted shortly before his death in 2005, the frail actor displays utter modesty despite the fact that he won a Bronze Star for his efforts in rescuing dozens of Marines who were trapped under enemy fire.
Opens August 31 (Vanilla Fire Productions).
Director: Steven C. Barber.
Producers: Matthew Hausle, Tamara Henry, Bart White.
Executive producer: Tim Shelton.
Screenwriter/editor: Paul Freedman.
Director of photography: Matthew Hausle.
Music: Jamie Dunlop.
No rating, 66 min.
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