Documentary Review: Archeologists, veterans and others search for MIAs of WWII — “To What Remains”

“To What Remains” is a film about the work of Project Recover, an organization devoted to finding and identifying the remains of American airmen lost in the South Pacific, primarily in and around the island of Palau, during World War II.

Dr. Pat Scannon’s non-profit research organization, formerly called the Bent Propellor Project, digs through National Archives materials such as combat “action reports,” looks for surviving eye-witnesses to add to what they know and sets out in search of MIA Navy, Marine and Army Air Force airmen from the more than 200 bombers, fighters and fighter bombers lost in the waters around The Republic of Palau, specifically the island Peleliu. the site of bloody island-hopping battles the U.S. and its allies fought on Japanese-held territory on their push toward Japan.

Christopher Woods’ film follows Scannon, an MD and PhD and amateur archeologist, and his team of veterans, enthusiasts and experts from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on their quest, diving the “blue corners” and “blue holes” and coral heads of some of the most beautiful islands on Earth, piecing together the puzzle of where a lost airman and his plane might be. Woods uses silent combat footage from the actual battle, with sound effects, to take the viewer back to 1944, showing us many air crashes as they do. And Woods tags along as descendants of the missing in action learn that their long lost loved-ones have been found, or in some cases, why they haven’t.

It’s a somber movie, with an emotional musical score to match, that traffics in ceremony, sentiment and that combat veteran’s “leave no man behind” code. Descendants and members of the search team, like former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, talk about sacrifice, the futures lost when this or that service member died saving democracy from fascism.

The film meanders a bit, taking some understandable detours that amount to “mission creep” as Project Recover excavates a “killing field” where the Japanese executed captured aircrew and Navy UDT (pre-SEALS Underwater Demolition Team members).

Those distractions highlight the oddly-narrow focus of Project Recover — air crew. Scannon talks of developing his “obsession” with the subject after hunting for and finding a Japanese trawler future president and WWII Grumman Avenger (bomber) pilot George. H.W. Bush sank in battle. Scannon’s ongoing obsession is finding a missing pilot friend of Bush’s, a former Naval air division mate and roommate who parachuted out of his downed plane, and disappeared.

That gives this sentimental (literal, at times) flag-waver an unintended, seriously elitist bent — skydivers/skindivers taking donations to finance searches in a Pacific Paradise for officer-pilots, most of them college men. Woods including infantry and combat-footage and speaking to veterans from that side of the battle comes off as a way of giving balance to the film in ways that Project Recover might lack.

“To What Remains” can’t help but find poignance in the sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation,” with reminders of the grim nature of the combat in the Pacific and the Japanese tendency to murder prisoners of war, and then try to cover those murders up.

But there’s just enough screen time devoted to the changing technology of MIA hunts, especially those requiring underwater searches, to make one wish the “science” side of the story was played up more.

The 75 years that have passed mean that showing touching reunions with anyone who remembers those lost has become a near mathematical impossibility. The film’s focus on people a couple of generations removed from those lost, some of whom were inspired to take up the Project Recover mantle, has a watered-down “Finding Your Roots” feel, and can even play as self-serving.

It’s still an intriguing History Channel-ready look into a hobby/obsession and the ways technology makes uncovering even the simple personal tragedies and individual sacrifices in a vast conflict possible and worthwhile.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Dr. Pat Scannon, Mark Moline, Marcus Luttrell, Jo Schumacher

Credits: Directed by Christopher Woods, scripted by Mark Monroe. An Abramorama release.

Running time: 1:21

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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