'The Liberator': TV Review

The Liberator
Courtesy of Netflix
Occasionally breathtaking animation elevates a story that too often marginalizes its diverse characters.
11/9/2020

Alex Kershaw's book about real-life soldier Felix Sparks' 500-day fighting campaign across Europe comes to Netflix in four-hour rotoscoped form.

Veterans Day isn't one of those holidays that has inspired a raft of celebratory TV episodes.

Other than a few nonfiction specials and cable blocks, the closest TV is coming to celebrating Veterans Day this year is with Netflix's four-part The Liberator: a limited series made very watchable by the decision to use rotoscope-flavored animation, but rendered vaguely infuriating by inconsistent focus and narrative choices.

Adapted from Alex Kershaw's book of the same title by Jeb Stuart and director Greg Jonkajtys, The Liberator is the mostly true story of Felix Sparks (Bradley James), whose World War II command of the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, became a 500-day fighting campaign across Europe — from the Battle of Anzio to Operation Dragoon to the Battle of Aschaffenburg to the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.

That the title of Kershaw's book refers primarily to a single man and that The Liberator, as a TV series, is concerned primarily with Sparks isn't in question; it's wise not to pay attention to Netflix promotion claiming the focus is split between Sparks and his battalion. Nicknamed the "Thunderbirds," the soldiers were an unlikely mix of Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Okie cowboys, and you can see why this motley crew would entice somebody looking to tell an inclusive story about the European front of the war. And at one point, when The Liberator was initially ordered as an eight-episode miniseries, I can imagine how that might have been the aspiration here.

The process of trimming The Liberator down to four hours has resulted in what I'm almost certain is the exact opposite of what the creators initially intended. Instead of portraying a diverse gamut of men fighting for a country that, back home, put restrictions on their rights, it's the story of a doggedly determined white officer who believes that all soldiers are created equal and stands up to more racist authority figures so that his men can go out and put their lives in jeopardy.

It's basically Glory, only in its two-hour running time, Glory was able to focus on Robert Gould Shaw and still give fully dimensional characters to at least a half-dozen of the Black soldiers under his command. The Liberator is Sparks' tale through and through. He gets hints of a backstory, a loving wife back home, countless scenes of noble heroism. Of his men, Samuel Coldfoot (Martin Sensmeier) and Able Gomez (Jose Miguel Vasquez) are probably the only two who make meaningful impressions.

It's one thing to just say that The Liberator got hamstrung by a reduced running time and that the fact of the matter is that Sparks is the consistent figure in the 500-day journey, so his story had to remain. But even within these four hours, there are choices I found baffling. Why, for example, would you give humanizing scenes to the Nazis behind enemy lines before doing the same for the Thunderbirds? When a Nazi in the premiere gets a long scene unpacking his time as a grad student at MIT, that's more backstory than any single Thunderbird gets. When a Nazi in the finale gets an emotional, quiet moment with his wife, that's more of a love interest/home life than any single Thunderbird gets. It benefits the narrative not at all to discover that Nazis had lives outside of the war, but it hinders the narrative that most of the minority soldiers — most of the non-Sparks soldiers, to be completely candid, are essentially disposable, regardless of race — lack any interiority.

James, who also was better than the provided material as Damien Thorn in the TV sequel to The Omen, conveys enough decency in his performance that you probably won't quibble that whatever human contradictions Felix Sparks might have once possessed, here he's just white knight-ing his way across Europe. His is the only performance you're likely to come away remembering individually, though the animation style is designed to include, if not accentuate, actors and their expressiveness. I'd point to Amazon's Undone for proof that, when the material is there for them, actors can stand out within a rotoscoped world.

The animation in The Liberator is why even if this review has a negative tone, my interest in the series almost never wavered (at least not until a closing 15 minutes recounting Sparks' journey with a mawkishness that makes the "Tell me I've lived a good life!" conclusion of Saving Private Ryan feel subtle). Brought into the project initially as cost-saving, the work from the animation house Trioscope, a computer-generated blending of animation and live action performance, is consistently interesting and, at its best, eye-popping.

With the animation creating virtual backgrounds, there's an occasional visual flatness that makes the characters feel like they're hovering weightless over the environment. Much more frequently, the animation makes distinctive what might otherwise be a rote depiction of terrain already covered in myriad movies and TV shows, with Band of Brothers as at least one structural and visual inspiration.

Without ever using the animation for fits of whimsy like Undone does, The Liberator shines when the animation captures gunfire, bloody violence and combat because it both grounds and elevates the action. I imagine that in the memory of somebody who goes through this sort of combat, there's a simultaneous experience of the visceral and dreamlike (or nightmarishness) that The Liberator realizes well. Start-to-finish, the animation is pretty, but there are bursts of breathtaking magic, like the sparkling of falling snow on soldiers huddled in the Vosges mountains.

So check out The Liberator for the animation, for observance of a commemorative day too frequently ignored in the medium, as an uncomplicated portrait of a single man's heroism. But be prepared to be frustrated by how much more complicated, and how much richer, the real history still is and the series should have been.

Cast: Bradley James, Jose Miguel Vasquez, Martin Sensmeier

Creator: Jeb Stuart from the book by Alex Kershaw

Director: Greg Jonkajtys

Premieres Wednesday, Nov. 11, on Netflix.