Dozens of Holocaust documentaries lean shamelessly on the subject’s unquestionable historical importance to give unearned heft to their pedestrian construction. Generally, they intercut stories of isolated kindness in the face of overwhelming evil with the limited supply of concentration-camp archival footage (which, through overuse, is slowly, counterproductively being drained of its harrowing qualities). Maudlin minor-key strings underscore the mood: An uplifting light at the end of the historical tunnel is always the destination.
The Rescuers sticks exactly to this sturdy template, starting with its eminently predictable opening shots, which have anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire and historian Sir Martin Gilbert staring at a graveyard crossroads as the first violins kick in. Nyombayire and Gilbert travel to 13 countries, listening to relatives and survivors explain how various diplomats and others intervened to save lives. For eminent historian Gilbert, the connective thread is “the mystery of goodness”; for Nyombayire, whose relatives were killed in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the lesson is that “never again” should translate into boots-on-the-ground intervention whenever mass killings are in the offing.
Director Michael King tries to break up oral testimonies (mostly from survivors and their relatives) with some rote re-enactments and still-photograph-doctoring executed with the tackiness of a DTV horror movie. When discussing mass executions via machine guns, the sound of gunfire isn’t enough: It’s amplified by a strobing light flashing over the photos. Archival library research is broken up into senseless split-screens—a scribbling hand here, a shelf there, no real sense of motion anywhere.
For dramatic momentum, The Rescuers leans most heavily on Gilbert and Nyombayire. Both are respectable, laudable forces for, respectively, serious historical contemplation and activist urgency—though Nyombayire’s conviction that the Western world should deploy military forces whenever genocide seems imminent is up for debate. Criticism of their on-camera presence shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal of their credibility, or the importance of the historical thread they’re following. Blame lies with King for repeatedly placing them in setups they simply aren’t capable of carrying, whether awkwardly “introducing” themselves to each other, or saying out loud what they already know for viewers’ expository benefit. The extremely literal-minded King can’t just show them on a hotel’s third floor: Gilbert and Nyombayire have to be shown entering an elevator, closing the door, going up, and exiting. Even then, that’s not enough: Gilbert has to bluntly announce, “So, here we are on the third floor.”
Unlikely Nazi hero Georg Duckwitz, British military officer Frank Foley, and others should surely be celebrated, and the particulars of their work reconstructed, but this kind of dully formulaic filmmaking accomplishes little more than congratulating viewers for caring enough about historical atrocities to watch. When Nyombayire says of Gilbert, “I can see that [the trip] is affecting him as deeply as it is affecting me,” that’s confirmed with a shot of her staring out the window pensively, then one of the historian washing his face and gazing into a mirror. This is a generic way to signify that they’re both shaken, reminding viewers that they should emotionally follow suit. But The Rescuers is in such a hurry to get from one five-minute-long story of heroism to another, it doesn’t do any of its subjects justice. Complaints of this kind go beyond caviling about craft: It’s hard not to feel that serious subject matter is being used to wrap an otherwise technically sub-functional, historically hasty work in an aura of unimpeachable importance.