Mike at the Movies: Big Ideas for the Small Screen


A confession: The last movie I saw in a theater was the 2020 Oscar winner Parasite, a Korean import that strangely (symbolically?) presaged the weird 18 months of pandemic that would follow. While I’ve been waiting for that one film to lure me back to a multiplex, I’ve spent a lot of time (like a lot of you, I bet) hunkered down in front of my Smart TV, immersed in a deluge of entertainment pumped into my house via streaming.

What I’ve discovered is that some movies belong on the biggest screens possible (Wonder Woman 1984, for example), where the size of the spectacle overwhelms the silliness of the story. Squeezed to a smaller dimension, all that spectacle just seems sillier and the story hardly worth the time and money.

Not so with documentaries. Perhaps because the genre is inherently more intimate in scope, documentaries seem perfectly suited to in-home viewing. And there are more than a few terrific documentaries out there on Amazon, Netflix, HBO and Hulu from which to choose.

Are you a fan of nature docs such as the award-winning Planet Earth series narrated by Sir David Attenborough? Check out My Octopus Teacher, available on Netflix, which was deservedly honored with the Oscar last year for Best Documentary Feature. 

Directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed create a gorgeous hybrid: a panoramic examination of undersea life along a reef in South Africa (your typical nature-doc stuff, spectacularly captured) and a personal meditation on loss and healing. The diminutive cephalopod that the narrator/diver “befriends” is, by turns, a creature of mystery, amusement and inspiration. This isn’t just a terrific documentary; it’s a great movie.

If you like your documentaries hot and topical, Hulu’s Changing the Game is worth a viewing. This film documents the lives of three teenagers caught in the cross fire of the controversy over transgender rights as they apply to interscholastic sports. (The GOP-led Wisconsin Assembly recently passed legislation, likely to be vetoed by the governor, prohibiting transgender athletes from competing at the high school level, so the film couldn’t be more timely.)

Director Michael Barnett focuses on two transgender girls – aspiring New Hampshire downhill skier Sarah, who dreams of the Olympics; and standout Connecticut track star Andraya, who hopes to run her way to a college scholarship – and a transgender boy named Mack, who’s forced by the state of Texas to compete exclusively in girls wrestling, which he has no trouble dominating, instead of the boys division he dreams of competing in. What you learn from watching these three kids – two are all girl, one is all boy, even though they weren’t born that way – is how they’re able to lead their normal lives despite the political circus raging around them.

We also meet their families, who support them in their pursuits of being their authentic selves, as well as the parents of other teenagers who insist that it is their children who are being discriminated against. Whatever your politics, the film makes for captivating viewing, laying out the pros and cons of the issues swirling around transgender athletes. 

Finally, if you enjoy documentaries that deal with crime and criminal investigations, you won’t do better than Alex Gibney’s The Crime of the Century on HBO and HBO Max. This exhaustive, two-part documentary peels back the layers of corruption related to the opioid epidemic that has devastated lives across the country. Much like he did in his 2007 Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Gibney presents a mountain of evidence in building an argument too compelling to ignore.

Part One focuses on Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which made billions on the manufacture and sale of OxyContin, a breakthrough drug in the treatment of chronic pain. While the Sacklers have been pilloried in the media for profiting from their highly addictive drug, government regulators and politicians on both sides of the aisle get their fair share of the blame as well in Gibney’s telling. 

Part Two documents the development and distribution of an even more deadly drug, Fentanyl, and its lasting effects on families and communities across the country. The people behind this drug and its marketing make the Sacklers look like Mother Teresa. It turns out that these homegrown, American drug cartels are every bit as greedy and deadly as their Mexican and Colombian counterparts.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.