The new Netflix miniseries The Liberator is a World War II story about brave men who bond through that terrifying experience, and who say things like, “Fear is a reaction; courage is a decision.” It is similar, in all ways but two, to dozens and dozens of filmed tales set amid that event, in particular the HBO classic Band of Brothers. But those two ways are fairly interesting, even if The Liberator doesn’t always take full advantage of them.
The first is that our heroes are members of the 157th Infantry Battalion of the 45th Division out of Oklahoma, an integrated group comprised of white cowboys, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. The second is that The Liberator is animated, in a style most commonly referred to as rotoscoping, where artists paint over live-action performances frame by frame. (Last year’s Amazon series Undone used a similar technique.) In this case, the style deploys a new bit of technology called Trioscope Enhanced Hybrid Animation, which was developed by the show’s chief director, Grzegorz Jonkajtys, a veteran visual-effects artist.
The complicated demographics of the unit known as the Thunderbirds, and the unusual style in which we see their adventures, frequently transcend the many clichés of the story, adapted by Die Hard screenwriter Jeb Stuart from a nonfiction book by Alex Kershaw. What should be tired, old shots of comrades cowering together as artillery explodes all around them instead feel like something new because of the animation style. And the relative prominence of nonwhite soldiers — particularly Samuel Coldfoot (Martin Sensmeier) and Able Gomez (Jose Miguel Vasquez) — also keeps the story from seeming like too much of a rehash.
But there are also limits to both of these deviations from the norm.
The opening title crawl boasts of how the 157th brought together men of such varied backgrounds, who became colleagues and friends in ways that wouldn’t have been possible on the segregated home front at the time. Mostly, though, The Liberator is adapting Kershaw’s story of the 157th’s noble white commander, Felix Sparks, played by Bradley James. As happens in both war and war films, casualties mount, and Sparks’ prominence grows with each passing installment as the men fight from Italy all the way to liberating a concentration camp at Dachau. He comes across as a profoundly decent and trustworthy guy anyone would be lucky to share a foxhole with, but his particular conflicts (like missing his wife and newborn son while not wanting to abandon his men) are among the most familiar of the tale, and grow increasingly so over the four episodes. James does well with the rhetoric Stuart gives him, particularly in a speech about the backgrounds of his men that he delivers early in their Italian campaign. But after an extended Dirty Dozen-style flashback to how Sparks assembled the core of the unit from outcast soldiers he found locked up in his Oklahoma base’s stockade, The Liberator gradually loses interest in the notion of Sparks’ men overcoming prejudice as they work to topple a racist German dictator. There are occasional scenes in the later episodes that touch on this idea, like a Sioux soldier and an Italian-American one bantering about whose name is more difficult to say, but very little of the story after the first episode would change if all the men under Sparks’ command were white(*).
(*) The show was originally sold to History as an eight-episode, live-action miniseries, and got cut in half and switched to animation as a way to economize and live another day at Netflix. It’s possible that the eight-hour version would have devoted more time to Coldfoot, Gomez, and the others. As it is, this version has artifacts of what was clearly a more sweeping story, particularly in periodic scenes that briefly switch the POV to the Nazis who are opposing the Thunderbirds. (The finale also has a scene where a superior officer recaps the events of the previous episodes, which might make some sense in a longer miniseries but feels like padding in a brief one like this.)
The animation style also proves to be a mixed bag. Even the muted color palette pops off the screen, bringing each scene to new life in a way that a live-action attempt might not. (The German soldiers’ white winter uniforms are particularly striking as we get some snowbound combat in the third episode.) And the technology does an excellent job of capturing performance, to the point where you may occasionally forget you’re watching a drawn version of James rather than the flesh-and-blood article.
But faces in this format are really only easy to distinguish from one another in medium shots or closer, which only compounds the problem inherent to the genre of combat scenes featuring lots of guys wearing helmets and identical uniforms. Sometimes, it’s clear who got hit; most of the time, it’s not. (This only adds to the sense that this is Felix Sparks’ story, and everyone else is just window dressing to make him look good.) And where the animation makes rain, snow, and some other difficult conditions look stunning, gunfire and explosions frequently take on a cartoonish air.
Yet, for all these technical bumps and missed opportunities, The Liberator more often than not is an effective reminder about why pop culture keeps revisiting World War II material again and again. Even when the filmmakers don’t explore the possibilities of this particular story to the degree that they could, the action is still thrilling, the moments of sacrifice are still inspiring, and the fundamental idea of Americans abandoning their conflicts with one another in service of a more important common cause will never not feel essential, especially at a moment like this one.
During a relatively easy stretch of the Thunderbirds’ European campaign, Sparks writes to his wife, “Dear Mary, This is how war is in the movies.” Sometimes, presenting war how it is in the movies is just enough to work.
The Liberator premieres November 11th on Netflix. I’ve seen all four episodes.