PBS // 2007 // 900 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // May 16th, 2012
In extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.
World War II wrought such changes that, nearly seven decades later, it remains the defining event of the world as we know it. In fact, the conflict has left such a lasting impression even today's youth know more about the events and personalities of WWII than they do any other military conflict since.
Ken Burns' The War doesn't follow the traditional path to discussing the events of World War II. There aren't high-level accounts of the causes, much about Germany's expansion, or Japan's aggression along the Pacific Rim. In fact, the film skims over the first three years of the conflict, entering the war at the same time the US did -- December 7, 1941 -- the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill, and Hirohito each get a bit of screen time, but Burns' focus is from the point of view of the soldiers and their families. Specifically, this mini-series is about people from four American towns: Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. By cutting back and forth between the warfront and the home-front, the battles in the Pacific and those in Europe, The War brings a strong sense of reality to what has become a somewhat whitewashed view of history.
It's easy to look on the events surrounding WWII from our distant perch in the future with proverbial rose-colored glasses. The general attitude of your everyday American could probably be summed up by paraphrasing Julius Caesar: We went, we saw, we kicked their butts. The exact details of how the butt-kicking occurred are generally glossed over, which is exactly the kind of attitude Burns strives to avoid, and why he choose to focus on the citizens of small American communities.
Once we get to know the people involved, every part of the war becomes real. Italy surrendered early, but since the German army was holding down the defenses, the Allies still had to battle through the entire country, one heavily-fortified ridge at a time. Walter Ehlers and Ward Chamberlain were there. Suicidal bombing runs without fighter cover proved the so-called Flying Fortress did not live up to its name. Tail-gunner Earl Burke gives a full account. Hundreds of American soldiers died during the Bataan death march, and those who survived were not necessarily the lucky ones. Glenn Frazier lived through it and talks about it in detail.
Virtually every minute of the conflict was Hell on Earth for these soldiers, and The War clearly makes that point. Though Ken Burns does not waver from his well-established style, it remains effective nevertheless. A myriad of photographs are slow-panned, as Keith David intones the story, period music plays, and battle scenes are cut by interviews and stock footage.
This approach is not without its limitations, though. Since Burns focuses on the people of his selected towns, only the battles they took part in get detailed coverage. There are some key moments, such as the Battle of Midway, which lose the personal touch and become brief documentary pieces. The four towns provided a wide range of combatants, though, so very little is missed.
The film's strength -- following these personal stories -- is also its greatest weakness, at least in terms of viewing this as a documentary. The War's American-centric attitude gives short shrift to the other involved parties, thus presenting an unbalanced viewpoint of the proceedings. Ironically, this reinforces one of the very assumptions the show was trying to disabuse. By the end, it still feels like the US went, saw, and kicked butt.
The War (Blu-ray) looks great and sounds better. The pictures and vintage footage are naturally grainy, but surprisingly detailed. The 1.78:1 1080i/60 AVC-encoded transfer has been deliberately kept a tad degraded, even in present day shots, to good effect. The Dolby 5.1 mix makes better use of the surrounds and subwoofer than many action films, giving the battle scenes an immersive feeling. The alternate Dolby 2.0 Stereo track comes across flat in comparison.
In terms of bonus material, PBS offers a reasonably extensive set. The highlights are commentary tracks on two of the early segments by Ken Burns and co-director Lynn Novick which talk about the process of building the show and how they met the people they interviewed. These discussions are not only informative but perhaps more engaging than the scenes they're speaking about. Perhaps Burns' next documentary will be Ken Burns: Documentarian. We also get a large number of extended interviews and other scenes cut from the original broadcast, and a "Making of" featurette that isn't nearly as interesting as the commentaries.
The American-centric focus keeps The War from being a truly well-balanced documentary, but the personal stories and vibrant battle sequences have a drawing power that keeps us engaged.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 900 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Interviews
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site