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Ken Burns is the master of the modern documentary film, having created the standards of the genre. Burns is a far different kind of filmmaker than the genre's media magnets like Michael Moore, as his productions are more thoughtful and historical, meant to take viewers back in time to experience a specific era rather than to effect political change or simply rabble-rouse. A list of Burns's most acclaimed films includes Thomas Jefferson, Jazz, Baseball, and, of course, the beloved 1990 benchmark The Civil War. The latter multi-part series revolutionized documentary filmmaking, its use of panning effects and lingering close-ups on still photographs bringing pre-cinematic bygone black-and-white worlds to life and sending the so-called Ken Burns Effect rippling through the industry. In The War, a seven-part series clocking in at over fourteen hours, Burns treads familiar territory, exploring a seminal event in American history through the eyes of Americans. In producing the film Burns had the added benefit of mining a massive trove of archival film footage, much of which is in color, a resource not available for many of his previous works. He was also able to venture into the memories of the large number of Americans who lived and survived the Second World War, many of whom, although elderly, are able to vividly recall their experiences during the time.
The War is framed through the perspectives of "four quintessentially American towns," for Burns's purposes being Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut (though he never reveals why these cities were chosen or are more quintessentially American than any other). The telling of the conflict's story is done from the perspective of the citizens and soldiers from these towns, with celebrities including Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Josh Lucas lending their voiceover talents to the project by reading letters from The War's players. "The war touched every family, on every street, in every town in America," Burns argues, which was certainly true. We hear from American soldiers, mothers, fathers, siblings, sweethearts, and non-combatants, whose stories and memories bring us intimately close to life during the war both in the United States and abroad.
Throughout his film Burns traverses the familiar territory of America's involvement in the war, moving in a slow, meandering style from Pearl Harbor to the Pacific front to Northern Africa and Italy to Normandy and Western Europe to the atomic bomb and the end of the war. We see amazing footage of all these arenas, including much color footage that was culled from less familiar sources than those of the iconic war reels we have come to recognize. The footage is excellent and in many cases brings the viewer into the bloody heart of the war's horrors.
While Burns strives to keep his perspectives tied to his four towns he, in a curious strategy, relies heavily on two interviewees who fall outside that four-cornered grid. Paul Fussell, the historian and literary scholar best known for his work on the memory of the First World War and his own memoir of the Second World War, is one of Burns's major players, as is Daniel Inouye, currently a United States Senator from Hawaii. The inclusion of these two, while interesting, completely breaks Burns's frame. Why use these two voices? Their recollections are poignant, but the effect of hearing from two voices outside of the "four town" frame is slightly jarring to a concept that is otherwise adhered to. Another missing perspective is that of historians, whose professional analysis in historical documentaries serves to balance the memories of other interviewees. Memory, as we well know, is not dependable, and should always be weighed with the thoughts and analysis of experts. Burns simply ignores this important fact, relying on footage and memory to create the story of a war, something notorious for producing multiple viewpoints of single events.
It is easy for us to gauge the importance Burns places on the Second World War in the grand scheme of American history, simply titling it The War, as if all other wars were of little consequence. One major problem with the project is Burns's lack of analysis of both the causes and consequences of the conflict. Burns spends all of five minutes recounting the origins of WWII, placing most of the blame on the apparently militaristic tendencies inherent in the leaders and, to a lesser extent, the peoples of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Unfortunately Burns fails to examine the failures of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War, as well as the rise of nationalism and armament that led, at least in part, to the conflict, not to mention the pacification of fascist leaders like Hitler, Italy's Benito Mussolini, and Spain's Francisco Franco by British, French and Vatican leaders for nearly a decade before, or the global depression caused at least in part by American economic policies. The post-war world also receives scant attention, with the Cold War, the reconstruction of Europe through the Marshall Plan, the rise of the "Third World," genocide, Vietnam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and religious fundamentalism all failing to be linked to the Second World War. Burns fails here to show how the war, however "good" or "just," still had consequences, both good and ill, that created the world we now inhabit, something that should have been at least a minor goal of a fourteen-hour documentary.
Watching The War was, I admit, an engaging experience. The individual stories and battle footage were captivating, but I never felt like I was learning anything new, as the story of America's role in the Second World War has been told ad infinitum. If you walk into any Borders or Barnes & Noble and peruse the American history section you will find, quite literally, rows upon rows of books on America's involvement in the Second World War. Why not, I ask Ken Burns, globalize the story of the war? It is far too easy to simply rehash the story of WWII from the American point of view (though Burns does borrow footage from both Germany and Japan). It would have been an extremely interesting project had Burns kept his "four town" frame, but relocated them to, say, one city each in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. Why not gather interviews from across the globe to illustrate a more complex view of the war? Granted, it is not possible to create, even in a fourteen-hour documentary, a comprehensive re-telling of a conflict that spanned every continent and involved nearly every nation on the globe. But why, why, Mr. Burns, did you choose to tell the same old story over again? It would have been an amazing feat to have included interviews from Japanese soldiers who fought at Guadalcanal (or some of those still emerging from the jungles decades later), from German citizens who experienced the decimation of Dresden or Berlin, or from Russian soldiers who pushed Hitler from their doorstep to his grave, in the process enveloping entire countries in a "liberation" by communism. His background is dominated by work for the American Public Broadcasting Service, but Burns should realize that the scope of the service's programming is not limited by its geographic borders, and by clinging to an American-centric view he does very little to advance the cannon of Second World War documentation, or to diversify his own career, for that matter. Imagine if he had only shown the events of The Civil War or Baseball through the eyes of the Union or the National League, respectively, and you'll get an idea of how The War - not titled America's War - feels.
Even in holding to just the domestic side of the story, Burns makes some serious omissions from The War. Where is America First, the large pacifist movement, or the rabid anti-Semitism that permeated throughout the entire country? Burns also deals with such contentious issues as the internment of Japanese-Americans and the wholesale killing of nearly a quarter of a million civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the most facile of ways. The lack of objective light cast on the internment of Japanese Americans - depicted as simply another sacrifice that American citizens had to make during the war, basically comparing it to collecting rubber or recycling tin foil or bacon grease - is perhaps particularly disappointing given the fact that very similar issues color the country's social and political climate a half-century later. And finally, and most importantly, the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan - acts that most modern analysts agree would have constituted war crimes if not crimes against humanity had the Allies lost - is not examined at all (though amazing footage of the weapon's devastation is), and Burns takes no stance on an issue which changed the world. That a filmmaker of Burns' caliber should take not just an easy route but the easiest route in The War is, admittedly, frustrating. History may be a story shaped by victors, but documentary filmmaking is about documenting, about analyzing human behavior and events through a process aimed at accuracy. By failing to engage such critical events, the effect of The War is far from gripping.
How does The War rate against other documentaries of WWII? While epic in scope (though certainly not as epic as it could have been), The War does not supplant Sir Jeremy Isaacs's sweeping and masterful The World at War as the best study of the Second World War. The History Channel has a vault of documentaries on various aspects of the Second World War, though most are garishly more baseball-and-apple-pie than The War, which is epic by comparison. In the terms of the war documentary genre in general, The War takes a back seat to fellow PBS productions The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century, which chronicled the story of the First World War, and Burns's own work on the American Civil War. The War is, ultimately, a very long and uneven documentary with moments of emotion and awe hidden throughout its sprawling, red-white-and-blue expanse.
It would perhaps be a disservice if I did not note my criticism of Burns's work here with the fact that, in the context of broadcast television both public and private, the series is far beyond the scope of most programming, and at times it was downright enjoyable to watch. I still love Burns' use of archival footage and the attention to music, and The War's narrative was interesting, if not a bit long-winded. (Did we really need, over and over, seemingly endless quotations of one soldier's letters home discussing in mundane detail what he ate for dinner every night, to be concluded with the perpetual lie, "everything's fine here, Mom," simply to set up his ultimate demise? The War has more letter-quoting than Letters from Iwo Jima.)
Another distinction of The War, which may be as attributable to political threats to PBS funding as to any evolution in the Ken Burns machine, was the marketing strategy, also used with Jazz, to release four albums of music from the film (available individually or as a special box set with a 24-page booklet essay by Burns). While possibly excessive (the collection is broken down into "The Soundtrack," "Classical Music," "Dance Hits," and "Hits") the music from the era adds a nice touch of cultural depth, though the inclusion of Nora Jones's "American Anthem," with the lyrics "America, I gave my best to you," was simply gratuitous.
Is The War worth watching? There are, indeed, stirring moments of battle and poignant pieces of memory throughout this epic, but the ultimate effect is, sadly, lacking. If you have fourteen hours to spare and nothing else to read, listen to, or watch, then perhaps The War, which debuted over seven nights spanning two weeks last month and is now being re-broadcast, is worth a look. But for those interested in a more comprehensive look at World War Two, I would recommend The World at War as a far superior, though dated, starting point. Burns simply waves too many American flags for the discriminating documentarian, and The War could not be recommended without many reservations. A shame, too, as Ken Burns could have done so much more with fourteen hours of coverage dedicated to a crucial event that truly reshaped the entire world.
Images from PBS, courtesy of the US Library of Congress and the US National Archives.
- SEE ALSO: www.pbs.org/thewar
Eric J. Morgan
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric J. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado. He has an orange cat named Nelson and longs for the day when men and women will again dress in three-piece suits and pretty dresses to indulge in three-martini lunches and afternoon affairs.
See other articles by Eric J. Morgan.
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