‘The Liberator’ Is a Patriotic Look at an American Hero but Loses Sight of the Diverse Unit He Leads
“War is hell,” is probably the only battle cliché not used in Netflix’s new miniseries, “The Liberator.” An ethnically disparate squad of courageous and patriotic Americans braves their way through hostile territory and racial profiling during World War II. These men are soldiers who want to fight, they live by platitudes like “fear is a reaction, courage is a decision,” and wander off into rousing patriotic soliloquies scattered on the battlefield, like land mines. These are the soldiers who shoot at circling planes with service revolvers while standing on flat ground without a foxhole in sight.
According to the narrator Mike Rowe, the Thunderbirds are “a unit from Oklahoma, composed of Mexican-Americans, Native Americans and Dust Bowl cowboys, most of whom couldn’t drink together in the same bars back home.” The soldiers encamped in July 1943, in Sicily, where they are on the start of a 500-day trudge through Nazi-occupied Europe. When the series begins, they are staying in a farmhouse they’ve commandeered, and vacillate between psychologically torturing and protectively appeasing a little Sicilian boy.
“Those men are the grandsons of the greatest Indian warriors to roam the American Plains,” Captain Felix Sparks (Bradley James) proudly tells the child, his chest expanding. “They killed mountain lion, hunted buffalo. Those men, they’re the descendants of the powerful Mexican army that defeated the French on Cinco de Mayo. And those men, they’re sons of Texas Rangers. They brought the rule of law to places where only killers and thieves lived before.” As with any band of brothers, the audience is already wondering who will be the first to die.
His platoon includes Sergeant Samuel Coldfoot (Martin Sensmeier), Corporal Able Gomez (Jose Miguel Vasquez), and Private Thomas Otaktay (Tatanka Means). Their translator, Corporal Joe Spigliani (Luca Varsalona) has been captured by German soldiers and is being interrogated. The corporal is a white soldier fighting in the kind of progressive squad the Nazis will never have, he believes. The Thunderbirds were named for the 1,500 indigenous American soldiers in its ranks, “I’ve been to Oklahoma, Corporal, and the bars have signs out front that say, ‘No Indians Allowed. No Mexicans,’” the Nazi reminds him. “I’ve also been to Georgia. They make their Negroes drink from separate water fountains, so don’t tell me they’re Americans just like you.”
The German soldier has a point. We recognize Spigliani through most of the series. Other than that, the rest of the soldiers are uniform and unrecognizable individually. The only thing that distinguishes Corporal Gomez from the rest of the squad is the scar across his eye. For all the anti-racist preamble, “The Liberator” is “Glory” without Denzel Washington. The Nazis get more emotional coverage than the Thunderbirds. The Nazi who was interrogating Spigliani? He went to MIT. We know it took Coldfoot forever to make sergeant, but what’s his favorite movie? A Nazi soldier gets to go home to his wife. Sparks has pictures of his wife Mary on his gun handle. We don’t even know if Otaktay has parents.
The four-episode miniseries is an experiment which should have cooked a little longer in the lab. “Liberator” was shot in live action and then animated on rotoscoping, which layers digital animation over actual footage. It comes across more like a vintage, black and white war movie projected over jelly filters. The fake scratches and faux grainy film only remind us how much better this might have been if it were shot eighty years ago, with cameras and real actors.
“Dear Mary,” Sparks writes to his wife back home. “This is how war is in the movies.” But it’s not. Tanks leave marks in the dirt in war movies. Soldiers flatten blades of grass as they walk over it. Wind tussles their hair. Wounded men bleed out. The advanced animation method is distracting. You never forget you’re watching an animated film. The tiny details, like enhanced facial expressions, are more spooky than identifiable. The characters all look out of focus, which doesn’t help the viewer distinguish one soldier from another. That’s because it’s not about them.
Based on the book “The Liberator: One World II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey” by Alex Kershaw, the miniseries dramatizes one man’s story. Felix Sparks commanded the 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, during the Battle of Anzio, Operation Dragoon, and the Battle of Aschaffenburg. He led the squad on the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. The miniseries presents a harsh, brutal Dachau, but the only horrors it exposes are the ones committed by American soldiers.
The Nazi soldiers don’t come off so bad. SS Storm trooper Lieutenant Voss (Vinzenz Kiefer) lets Sparks save his fallen compatriots rather than kill him as the enemy “because we had a choice.” What a nice Nazi. The American fighting unit, which braves the fog, terrain and enemy bullets, were the troublemaking J-Company at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. They spent most of basic training in jail for offenses like punching officers. For all their violence, they can’t hit the broad side of a barn on a shooting range, until Sparks brings colorblind unity to the group, and turns them into a modern day “Dirty Dozen.”
There is plenty of violence, and the battle scenes are rendered with graphic beauty, but the rotoscoping keeps it at an emotional distance without taking advantage of the freedom of the animation. Some scenes retain a gripping suspense and surprise. During the zero visibility of the march through the fog, one soldier makes a crack about the point men keeping watch, and immediately draws machine gun fire. The voice acting is effective, but suffers from the filters which mask the soldiers’ reactions. Though the more intimate scenes do capture the immediacy of peril. When Spigliani is questioned early in the film, the German officer mistakes the Italian word with the English word for “bridge,” and the American soldier almost loses his cranium over it.
Created and written by Jeb Stuart and directed by Greg Jonkajtys, “The Liberator” will resonate with patriotic watchers, but is too corny to be dramatically effective. It is a rousing backstory biography of the real Sparks, who went on to make a career of the army, rising to general. But is ultimately a shallow look at a versatile group of soldiers.
“The Liberator” begins streaming Nov. 11 on Netflix.