Review: Documentary 'The Giant Killer' Recounts The Smallest War Hero's Tragic Story

To be quite honest, I’m not very big on documentaries. As a rule, they don’t tend to really do it for me. That being said, I can certainly appreciate an incredibly well done one. I am able to set aside my own preference for narrative stories and enjoy a compelling doc now and again. That being said, the new film The Giant Killer just barely cleared that hurdle. It had interesting moments, but never quite grabbed me as an audience member.

The film recounts the life story of “the smallest soldier”, Richard J. Flaherty. He was a tough as nails, four-foot-tall Vietnam vet who began his adult life as an American hero before descending into violence, drugs, crime, and, eventually, homelessness. Having befriended Officer David Yuzuk while living on the streets, Flaherty had recalled to him several stories of his mysterious and troubled past. After Flaherty’s sudden death in an unsolved hit and run accident, Yuzuk took it upon himself to gather the missing pieces of the late vet’s story. The film follows Yuzuk as he interviews countless people who knew Flaherty at various points, and reenacts scenes from his unbelievable life.

I understand the impulse to create a documentary about this story. It is truly stranger than fiction. However, The Giant Killer, comprised of talking head interviews and actors recreating events, feels less like a documentary film and more like an episode of a true crime TV series. Its 70 minute runtime only further blurs that line. To me, a documentary should be more than just a story being told to you. Compelling non-fiction films need a certain style and narrative flow that this movie just doesn’t hit. I honestly think it’s a good story, just delivered in the wrong format. Tales of real-life crime and intrigue are everywhere now, from TV to podcasts to graphic novels; any of those mediums would have better suited the content shown in the film. Even a narrative adaptation may have worked a little stronger. There was just something about its format that didn’t click.

Additionally, the film touches on several hot button issues in a casual manner that, through no fault of its own, I’m just not in the mood for at the moment. The point of The Giant Killer is to explore the good beneath the rough exterior of a troubled and enigmatic man. I get that, and I respect and understand the heroism displayed by Flaherty early in his life. Unfortunately, the film also touches on the life of crime he lived in his later years, which included, among other things, machine gun smuggling. Some people right now, myself included, are probably not be in the mood for a story about how there was hidden good within a man giving high powered weapons to the highest bidder. Perhaps if handled with a bit more care, this aspect wouldn’t have turned me off so much. Maybe it was just poor timing. Maybe it goes back to the issue of the style not matching the content. Regardless, this is the story of a polarizing figure, whose controversial nature isn’t explored as delicately as I would have hoped.

Ultimately this is a fine film. It is compelling, just not as much as it seems to think it is. I agree with Yuzuk that Richard Flaherty’s story deserves to be explored, I just wish it were under a different set of circumstances.

Rating: 2 out of 5