A well-made documentary film or series can be as entertaining and gripping as any piece of big budget celluloid fiction – and there’s the added bonus of it actually making you smarter to boot, filling your brain with tons of facts (some useful, some less so) with which you can regale your friends in the pub.
Netflix is absolutely stacked with documentaries, some of which are fantastic and many of which are little more than schlocky trash TV. But fear not: we’ve picked through the detritus to bring you our definitive list of the best pieces of fact-based film and TV on the streaming service.
Whether you’re interested in towering sporting achievement, tech history, true crime or culinary exploration, there’s something here for you.
The Vietnam War
When it comes to American documentary makers – and documentary makers concerned specifically with America – Ken Burns stands apart. In the past he’s taken on such weighty US-centric subjects as World War II, the Civil War, prohibition, jazz, race and baseball – and this, his latest project, tackles a subject of similar weight, in the Vietnam War.
Made with frequent collaborator Lynn Novick for broadcaster PBS, this is highly detailed overview of the 20-year conflict (and its origins) spread over 10 feature-length episodes (yes, it’s really, really long). Each is packed with talking head interviews and archival footage, and soundtracked both with contemporary music and a brand new score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor.
The undertaking took Burns and Novick a decade to complete; the result is an authoritative, nuanced and utterly compelling portrait of a war that dominated American political and social discourse for a generation, but remains poorly understood and difficult to discuss even today.
ReMastered: Who Shot the Sheriff?
On the night of 3rd December 1976, a group of gunmen entered Bob Marley’s home in Kingston, Jamaica and wounded the reggae star, his wife Rita and his manager Don Taylor. Marley quickly recovered – in fact, he headlined a huge concert a couple of days later – but the identity and motives of the would-be assassins has never been revealed.
There are many theories, some of which are explored in this excellent hour-long Netflix Original documentary, which brings together many of Marley’s friends and associates to talk about the attack and the political climate in Jamaica that seems to be the root cause of it. The Cold War, the CIA, Cuba, gang violence, drug traffickers, even horse-racing – all of it weaves together into a fascinating portrait of a fraught time in the island’s history.
Already blazed through Making A Murderer? Binged on Evil Genius? Consumed The Keepers? Then allow us to direct you to The Staircase, another Netflix true crime documentary series that’ll get its hooks in you by showing the inner workings of a US murder case.
An exploration of the American legal process, a portrait of an unconventional family and a mystery story rolled into 14 episodes filmed over more than a decade, this series is based around the strange case of Kathleen Peterson, discovered in a pool of blood at the bottom of her North Carolina mansion’s staircase. The filmmakers follow the progress of the ensuing trial, in which Kathleen’s novelist husband Michael is the accused. Full of shocks and surprises and likely to leave you with plenty of questions to ponder come its end, The Staircase is a must-see for any documentary fan.
Outraged by the federal government’s actions at the Ruby Ridge and Waco sieges, an intelligent, thoughtful Gulf War veteran felt driven to action, resulting in his building a truck bomb and driving it up to the doors of the Alfred P Murrah building in downtown Oklahoma City.
The deadliest act of domestic terrorism ever committed in the United States, the bombing killed 168 people – and was perpetrated by anti-government radical Timothy McVeigh, whose motives and methods are explored by this compelling feature-length documentary. For anyone fascinated by the rise of the radical anti-establishment right in America, Oklahoma City represents an intriguing overview of its early emergence.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
This officially-sanctioned documentary on the life of Nirvana's enigmatic frontman is a must for fans of the band and the uninitiated alike.
The cooperation of Kurt's family (the documentary was apparently instigated by his widow, Courtney Love) is the usual mixed blessing. On the one hand, access to never-before-seen material sheds new light on the extent of Cobain's genius; on the other, it's hard to believe that this retelling isn't skewed at least a little by the agendas of Kurt's parents and Love herself. The fact that Dave Grohl was interviewed but not included is also a big disappointment.
But if you're prepared to accept that every documentary has some kind of agenda, angle or compromise, Montage of Heck is superb. Even the most dedicated Nirvana fan will be blown away by Kurt's endless lyrical and artistic scribbles, and the animation of these makes for a clever storytelling tool. This almost certainly isn't the whole story of Kurt Cobain, but it's a brilliant film in its own right.
The Defiant Ones
Ever wanted to know how Dr Dre made his name on the L.A. scene? Or how his Beats partner Jimmy Iovine became pals with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon almost by accident? Then this Grammy-winning HBO documentary series, which tells the story of the pair’s rise from working class strivers to music millionaires to tech billionaires, will go down smoother than a G-Funk beat on a warm South Central day.
Brilliantly edited, with illuminating contributions from some of the tech and recording industries’ biggest figures and tons of previously unseen footage, The Defiant Ones will swiftly snare any music fan in its jaws.
Recounting the unbelievable events of what later came to be called the “pizza bomber heist” (and, let’s face it, those three words alone should be enough to pique your interest), this four-part Netflix miniseries starts with a dazed man walking into a small town Pennsylvania bank with a ticking bomb fixed around his neck and finishes… well, that would be telling too much.
Madness, murder, prostitution, drugs, cancer, greed, robbery, narcissism, hoarding, law enforcement dysfunction and, yes, pizza all weave together in this compelling true story, which would likely be dismissed as too far-fetched were it fictional. It’s great true crime stuff with a human edge.
Has there been a more high-profile murder case this millennium than that of “Foxy Knoxy” – the American student arrested as a 20-year-old in Perugia for the murder of her British flatmate Meredith Kercher?
Nearly a decade on, she’s back home in Seattle having been acquitted by an Italian court. But if she didn’t do it, who did? Considering the amount of coverage the case received at the time – coverage that this film is keen to criticise for being sexist, crass, sensationalist and exploitative – it’s probably not surprising that it doesn’t reveal anything particularly new, although it does introduce us to tabloid journalist Nick Pisa, a smarmy hack who makes Piers Morgan look like a shining example of his profession.
Knox’s one-to-one interviews are the most compelling part of the film, revealing a thoughtful, articulate woman who’s had plenty of time to think about what happened that day. It’s just a shame the film spends so long retreading old ground, rather than examining what it’s like to live in the shadow of such a horrifying crime.
Directed by journalist Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington (who was to be killed a year after its release while working in Libya), this feature-length documentary about a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Watch it and you’ll see why: consisting entirely of footage shot on location over the course of a year, it explores not only the dire military and political situation in the valley but delivers an illuminating raw picture of the soldiers’ frontline experiences, from adrenaline-driven firefights to the loss of comrades.
World War II in Colour
This 13-part documentary series does exactly what it says on the tin: tell the story of the major events of the Second World War using the somewhat unusual medium of colour film. From the war’s origins in worldwide economic depression to the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, it’s all retold in glorious, living colour from newsreels and other contemporary sources. Some of the footage is original, some has been colourised after the fact, but the effect is much the same – by showing us things we’ve previously only seen in monochrome (or in fictional reconstructions), it’s giving us a rare opportunity to view them with fresh eyes.
Wild Wild Country
This slick, stylish six-part Netflix series will gleefully suck in anyone with more than a passing interest in cults, utopian visionaries, counterculture and power struggles.
It tells the story – by turns comedic and unsettling – of Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who brought his band of red-robed followers to a Manhattan-sized tract of land in the Oregon wilderness with the intention of founding a self-sustaining city based on “love and sharing” rather than ownership and individualism.
Unsurprisingly, this band of free love-advocating New Age nudists immediately come into conflict with the handful of local townspeople – God-fearing, conservative and mostly old – and the amazing true story of this rapidly escalating butting of heads is told masterfully through new talking heads interviews and hours of archive footage. With the tale taking incredible twists and turns (Germ warfare! Arson! Attempted murder! The FBI! The co-founder of Nike!), this is among the most compelling original documentary series in Netflix’s library.
Reckon Chef’s Table is a little too sedate and respectful for your tastes? Netflix has another, newer food show that might be more your speed: Ugly Delicious.
Fronted by award-winning chef David Chang and food writer Peter Meehan, it plunges face first into comfort food rather than venerating fine dining. Each episode focusses on a type of grub – pizza, tacos, fried chicken, home cooking, BBQ etc. – exploring its history and traditions and taking a deep, delicious dive into how different cooks and chefs around the world have developed it. For instance, did you know the best Neapolitan pizza in the world might just be in Tokyo?
Chang, Meehan and the succession of guest hosts make it a casual, irreverent and enjoyable watch, as well as an engrossing exploration of everyday eating. One note of advice, though: don’t view it on an empty stomach.
Flint, Michigan used to exemplify the American Dream. Like nearby Detroit, the city boomed off the back of the automotive industry, becoming home to a burgeoning middle class and some of the highest median wages in the USA.
Today, it’s a case study for the Dream's decay, one of the nation’s most impoverished cities, with crumbling infrastructure, soaring crime and an underfunded and shorthanded police force. Throw in a deadly (and totally avoidable) water crisis, and Flint starts to look like nothing less than exemplar of systemic failure, a microcosm of forgotten Middle America. Little wonder Michigan, after voting for the Democratic candidate in six consecutive elections, was won over by Donald Trump’s rambling promises to bring prosperity back to the Rust Belt.
It makes for a grimly fascinating subject in Netflix’s original eight-part documentary series, filmed over two years and focussed on the aforementioned police department. With fewer than 100 officers tasked with policing over a thousand times that many people, the department’s overstretched and demoralised, but determined to keep the city from collapsing. If you want a stark portrait of late capitalist America, and an inside view of how a US police department works (or doesn’t), Flint Town is a must watch.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Much of the footage that makes up this raw, funny and touching behind-the-scenes doc was only recently unsealed by Universal Pictures. Apparently, studio executives didn’t want Joe Public thinking star Jim Carrey was, in his own words, “an asshole”.
Because Carrey insisted on staying in character while filming Andy Kauffman biopic Man on the Moon, either as the misunderstood funny man himself, or his obnoxious lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton - something that baffled, infuriated and entertained his co-stars in equal measure.
It’s a fascinating insight to Carrey’s state of mind at the time, when he seemed to genuinely believe he was channeling Kauffman throughout filming - leading to a news-making bust up with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, private reconciliation with Kauffman’s estranged daughter, and on-set antics that genuinely made life hell for the filmmakers.
You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy this must-watch doping exposé.
Icarus is effectively two documentaries in one, with the first third of the film a kind of Super Size Me for performance-enhancing drugs. The filmmaker, a semi-pro cyclist, embarks on a hardcore doping program to show how flawed the drugs-testing process is.
But when his advisor, Russian scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, suddenly finds himself in the eye of an international storm over Russia's state-sponsored doping program, Icarus handbrake turns into an enthralling fly-on-the-wall thriller about being a whistleblower in Putin's Russia.
Cue mysterious deaths, chilling interviews and a lots of hand-wringing as Rodchenkov goes into hiding from the new KGB.