12 Documentaries That Changed Public Opinion

Documentaries usually aim to entertain and inform in equal measure. They also intend to be thought-provoking and offer different perspectives on hot topics in history.

In some cases, documentaries unearth new evidence that changes public opinion on an event or a belief system the population had previously followed.

1. “Super Size Me” (2004)

Super Size Me
Image Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

This 2004 documentary by Morgan Spurlock fits the brief for the purposes of a documentary. It’s certainly thought-provoking, but I’m not sure what viewers expected. The effects on Spurlock’s body after a month of McDonald’s food were shocking, but did anybody think it would be a good idea? Super Size Me did, however, put the topic of obesity firmly in the spotlight.

2. “My Octopus Teacher” (2020)

My Octopus Teacher
Image Credit: Netflix.

Get ready for a tearjerker. We all know that the octopus is intelligent, but this 2020 documentary explored this fascinating creature further. In My Octopus Teacher, a young female octopus forms a bond with a human, allowing him into her world. After mating, she dies. While this is a natural process, it’s heartbreaking.

3. “Blackfish” (2013)

Blackfish (2013)
Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

Man’s attitude to and treatment of animals is also called into question by this 2013 documentary. Blackfish tells the tale of Tilikum, an orca kept at SeaWorld Orlando. While the company disputed claims made in the film, the story is a tough watch that changes public perception of captive aquatic creatures.

4. “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Al Gore
Image Credit: Paramount Classics.

Although most people were aware of global warming before 2006, this documentary did the most to bring the issue into the public consciousness. It focuses on former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, often seen as a crank in popular culture then. An Inconvenient Truth looks at the facts behind Gore’s educational campaign, proving many of his theories.

5. “Man on Wire” (2008)

Man on Wire (2008)
Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

This is a compelling documentary I’ve watched on many occasions. Man on Wire documents Philippe Petit’s incredible tightrope walk across the Twin Towers in 1974 without a safety net. It’s more than just a stunt, however. The film offers fascinating insights into the courage and the will to prove anything is possible.

6. “Our War” (2016)

Our War (2016)
Image Credit: Torch Films.

Many documentaries aim to provide a view from the frontline, but only a few succeed. Our War from 2016 tells the story of three soldiers in Afghanistan, and the gritty truth hits the mark. If you’re considering any war films and want some realism, you should start here.

7. “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)

Fahrenheit 9/11
Image Credit: IFC Films.

Any of Michael Moore’s films could have made the list, but I favor Fahrenheit 9/11. The director’s work is stunning, focusing on the controversial 2000 presidential election results and George W. Bush’s administration that followed. Many of Moore’s claims are disputed, and this documentary continues to spark fierce debate.

8. “Stranded” (2007)

Stranded
Image Credit: Zeitgeist Films.

Many remember the Uruguayan rugby team involved in a 1972 plane crash in the Andes. The survivors cannibalized those who perished in the crash, but do we understand what they lived through? Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains, to give the film its full title, brings the story home, and it’s a harrowing tale.

9. “Cowspiracy” (2014)

Cowspiracy The Sustainability Secret (2014)
Image Credit: Netflix.

It’s another inconvenient truth that animal farming and subsequent food production affect many areas of our environment.  Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, released in 2014, explores this area of agriculture and the damage it causes. The documentary was a strong argument for switching to a vegan diet.

10. “Bad Sport: Fallen Idol” (2021)

Bad Sport (2021)
Image Credit: Netflix.

Of the many sporting documentaries available, this is my top recommendation. The entire Bad Sport series is thought-provoking, but Fallen Idol gets closest to those involved with Hansie Cronje and cricket’s most infamous match-fixing scandal. It’s a cautionary tale of a good man who got involved with bad people.

11. “JFK: One Day in America” (2023)

Image Credit: National Geographic Channel.

If, like me, you are fascinated by the story of John F. Kennedy and his assassination, there are a lot of films to work through. Some focus on conspiracy theories, but JFK: One Day in America tells the story as we know it. The documentary features interviews with those who were there, and it’s the best option for those interested in the facts rather than speculation.

12. “Jonestown: Paradise Lost” (2007)

Jonestown: Paradise Lost
Image Credit: History Channel.

Those fascinated by cults and why people follow their leaders must watch this film. Jonestown: Paradise Lost is a 2007 release covering Jim Jones and the final days of his Peoples Temple. It changed public opinion because it got to the root cause of that impulse to join such an organization. It’s a compelling, grim tale with some harrowing scenes.

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