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5 must-watch documentaries that aren’t available on Netflix

Published Jun 13th, 2023 10:22AM EDT
Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov
Image: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Many people might not realize it, but 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of a harrowing sequence of events that, in hindsight, could very well have set the end of the world in motion. Not only was a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia narrowly avoided back in 1983 — thanks to the quick thinking and steel nerves of a lone duty officer in a bunker just outside of Moscow — but I’d wager that far too many people don’t even have any idea what I’m talking about. One of my favorite documentaries, The Man Who Saved the World, is a 2014 film that tells the story of what happened, and I bring it up because this anniversary year is the perfect time to seek it out.

It’s available via video-on-demand channels like iTunes and is, in fact, one of several excellent documentaries that aren’t available to watch on Netflix but are nevertheless worthy enough of your time. We’ll take a closer look at some of my favorites, below — but The Man Who Saved the World, about the heroic actions of Stanislav Petrov (a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces), is the most memorable and unsettling of the bunch, by far. The others run the gamut from music documentaries to portraits of famous figures and quiet, contemplative slices of life, perfect for any viewer who’s looking for more than a big-budget Hollywood thriller or the latest forgettable streaming TV series on Netflix or another platform.

Some of the best documentaries that can’t be found on Netflix

I’ve certainly been spending more time glued to documentaries these days, as opposed to streaming TV series, and I can’t say enough good things about these five titles — starting with the one about a narrowly-averted nuclear holocaust.

The Man Who Saved The World

Petrov and his colleagues were frozen in horror on the morning of Sept. 26, 1983. Alarms were screaming at their secret military facility outside Moscow, where the country’s military monitored early-warning satellites. According to their computers, the satellites had picked up the launch of five intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from an American base and headed straight for the Soviet Union.

To make matters worse, this was happening during one of the most tense periods of the entire Cold War. President Reagan had branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was convinced the US would launch a first strike that the Soviet Union needed to be able to counter — and maybe even pre-empt.

Even so, Petrov had a funny feeling that wouldn’t go away.

First, the Soviet systems were showing that only five American missiles were on their way. Hardly the onslaught of devastation that the most pessimistic Soviet officials were convinced would come. Plus, Petrov already knew the country’s detection systems were not 100 percent reliable — they’d been rushed to completion to keep pace with the US. Obviously, I’m not spoiling the ending of this documentary (since we’re all, you know, still here). There are estimates that as many as 288 million people could have died in the resulting nuclear exchange between the two powers — and hundreds of millions more after that from resulting consequences like starvation.

And all because the subpar Soviet satellites had mistaken the sun reflecting off the clouds for US missiles.

Hello, Bookstore

On a much lighter note, meanwhile, this next title that I recommend adding to your documentaries watchlist tells the story of owner Matt Tannenbaum’s independent bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts. It’s actually a love letter to independent bookstores everywhere, and also — thanks to the way the community rallies to save Tannenbaum’s bookstore during the Covid pandemic — the kind of feel-good story that never gets old.

Love, Charlie

The iconic Chicago chef and restaurateur Charlie Trotter, who died in 2013, was a towering culinary figure with boundless talent and the personality of a hurricane — making him the perfect subject for a thoughtful documentary treatment.

Love, Charlie is a warts-and-all snapshot of the life of a chef who waged a ferocious and never-ending battle for perfection, and who arguably ended up personifying George Bernard Shaw’s famous maxim, the one about the value to the world of unreasonable men.

Two more documentaries, for Beatles and Robert Caro fans

Meeting the Beatles in India

To a lifelong Beatles fan like me, Paul Saltzman is one of the luckiest Beatles fans who’s ever lived.

In the late 1960s, as a young adult, the future Canadian film and TV producer and director was feeling a bit adrift and decided to pack his bags for a trip to the other side of the world — specifically, to study transcendental meditation in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

He was hoping it would help him find some measure of fulfillment and inner peace. He didn’t count on also finding the four most famous celebrities on Earth at the time, The Beatles. They’d come to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, at the same time and for the same purpose. Saltzman’s documentary includes fascinating, intimate photos of The Beatles from that brief period — as well as anecdotes from his time spent with the musicians in the camp at the foot of the Ganges. Suffice it to say, this is a must-watch for Beatles fans.

Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb

From this documentary’s official synopsis:

Turn Every Page explores the remarkable 50-year relationship between two literary legends, writer Robert Caro and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb. Now 86, Caro is working to complete the final volume of his masterwork, The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Gottlieb, 91, waits to edit it.

“The task of finishing their life’s work looms before them. With humor and insight, this unique double portrait reveals the work habits, peculiarities, and professional joys of these two ferocious intellects at the culmination of a journey that has consumed both their lives and impacted generations of politicians, activists, writers, and readers.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.