Judge Brendan Babish wishes his own life could be chronicled by Ken Burns. Until then, he'll have to settle for editing his home videos with ample use of the Ken Burns Effect on iMovie.
In extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.
Ever since PBS aired his epic documentary mini-series The Civil War, Ken Burns has become America's preeminent chronicler. In the intervening 17 years, he has not only created the definitive films on two of this country's greatest achievements, baseball and jazz, but also directed several smaller, intimate projects which are just as good, including 2004's Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.
After realizing that scores of American veterans of World War II are dying every day, Burns said he was compelled to chronicle some of their first-hand accounts of the United States' involvement in that conflict. Thus, we have his next epic project, The War.
Facts of the Case
As mentioned at the beginning of each of the six episodes that comprise The War, World War II was far too epic a conflict to be adequately chronicled in a single accounting. So what Burns (and co-director Lynn Novick) have done is explore the war through the experiences of four American towns: Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama. The film follows both the young men from these towns who went off to Europe, Africa, and Asia to fight in the war, but also depicts how the lives of the everyday citizens who stayed behind were changed by the war effort.
Burns often strays outside this framing device, most prominently when The War explores the treatment of American prisoners at the hands of Japanese in the Philippines and in the profiling of Daniel Inouye, the Japanese-American who is currently a United States senator from Hawaii, who put off his medical studies to fight in Europe.
There is very little screen time dedicated to the politicians and generals who actually managed the war. Likewise, there is little discussion of tactics. Burns is far more focused on the personal experiences of unheralded individuals who traveled halfway across the world to fight, and those who stayed home and sacrificed.
There seems to have been a slow backlash building up against Ken Burns ever since The Civil War drew such deafening praise that one would have thought he had invented the documentary format, instead of merely revitalizing it. This sort of unqualified acclaim nearly always drives an incensed minority to begin searching for flaws simply to deflate an emerging prodigy. Thus, while Burns' epic Baseball was rightly lauded, there were smatterings of complaints about certain players who were left out, or bellyaching over minor inaccuracies. Jazz elicited similar responses, with incredulous griping about unforgivable omissions; a friend of mine concluded that the entire mini-series "sucked" simply because Oscar Peterson was excluded.
Due to how fickle I find most of Burns' detractors, it is only with the greatest reluctance that I find myself joining their nattering ranks. Make no mistake, The War is still a commendable achievement. However, at this point, the premiere of a new Burns mini-series is rightly commensurate with a national holiday. Admittedly, it is probably unfair to judge a work under the weight of such expectations; however, it is difficult not to with Burns, since he has faced these expectations previously, and not only met them, but exceeded them both times.
Part of the problem here is that World War II has been so well-chronicled it is difficult to produce any new revelatory material on it. The fact that The War doesn't feel like a needless retread is in itself nearly remarkable. Burns and Novick, and certainly a small army of research assistants, have unearthed a treasure trove of footage from the 1940s that, in its totality, is nearly staggering. What is especially interesting is the number of clips—including some from the battlefield—that are in color. With so many narrative filmmakers over the years choosing to recreate the war in black and white or with a dull color palette, these provide a more accurate depiction than any previous real or dramatized footage I've ever seen.
These, coupled with an astounding series of interviewees, gives the The War a very solid foundation. The subjects may not be well known or have been in positions of power, but their stories, which serve as the driving narrative force of the series, alternately invoke Greatest Generation-inspired nostalgia and abject horror. The nostalgia is already well established in American culture; the horror not so much, especially compared with the consistently harrowing depictions of the Vietnam War. For reminding viewers about the horror of World War II, The War should be commended.
There are countless stories recounted that are simply chilling. One of the best, surprisingly, is included in the supplement to Episode One, which was only tacked on after protests that the series did not include any Hispanic representatives. A former soldier from Puerto Rico recounts he grew so irritated by an injured man's cries in the night that he prayed for that man's death. In the morning, after the man had mercifully passed away, he discovered it was his best friend.
As harrowing as that story is, it is the pained face of the storyteller that gives it such resonance. Throughout The War, even mundane observations are haunting because you can see the horrible experiences reflected in countenance of the commentators. One of the veterans talks about the numerous deaths in his company and says that "burying your best friend…that's no fun." In a work of fiction that line would be laughably bad. Here you see the man searching for the words, and there are none. In his case, "no fun" seems about as apt as anything could be.
Still, despite all these strengths, The War fails to become a seminal work, which is disappointing almost singularly because of Burns' track record. World War II is such an expansive canvas to work on, and limiting the scope to four American towns (though, admittedly, Burns often violates these self-imposed boundaries) creates natural shortcomings and inhibits one's understanding of the larger conflict. While it is interesting that great leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt, and great villains like Stalin and Hitler, are given so little attention, it makes the series seem somehow bereft. Imagine if Burns' The Civil War were recut to take out any substantial passages of Abraham Lincoln and you get an idea of what was lost by focusing so single-mindedly on the citizens and relatively low-ranking soldiers.
Additionally, though America's contribution and involvement was clearly substantial, in a sense it pails to what transpired in most of the other countries involved. America's participation in the war was not as transformative an experience as it was for several other nations, including all of the major participants (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan). Yes, it did change our country, and the war effort was inspiring, but as an early commentator in The War noted, with the exception of Pearl Harbor, Americans at home never really faced much danger. Meanwhile, over a dozen countries in Europe and Asia were facing real existential threats. American military deaths made up only two percent of the total number of Allied military fatalities in the war. And compare that to the Soviets, whose military absorbed 65 percent of all Allied military deaths, not to mention several million additional civilian fatalities.
For this reason, The War can not come close to serving as a definitive record on World War II. That is not necessarily a criticism of the film, but it does lessen it in comparison to other documentaries, particularly Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow, a 10-hour PBS mini-series produced in 1997 that documents the fighting between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II (unfortunately, it is currently only available on VHS). I watched this mini-series when it first aired, and it is one of the best historical documentaries I have ever seen. Ten years later I can still recall it clearly, perhaps clearer than I would like. Ten years from now, I doubt I will say the same about The War.
The picture quality on the DVD transfer is a mixed bag. Thankfully, the aged images—the pictures and film from the 1940s—look as clear and pristine as seems possible. However, the contemporary interviews seem grainy and blurry at times. Still, I am glad that the artifacts of that time period seem to have received appropriate care to detail.
The score is not nearly as essential here as it was in either The Civil War or Jazz. The music is very understated, as Wynton Marsalis—who composed the original music for the series—choose light, unobtrusive jazz accompany the images. Though this prevents us from making full use of the 5.1 Dolby Digital track, the soundtrack is still clear and subtly evocative.
The extras on this DVD set are very impressive. In both the featurette "Making The War" and their commentary tracks, Burns and Novick talk extensively about the construction of the mini-series, from its scope to the decisions on which stories to include and which to include. These provide fascinating insights into the creative process of crafting a daunting documentary project like this. Additionally, there are several deleted scenes, additional interviews, and photo galleries that expand and illuminate upon the material presented in the mini-series. If all that isn't enough, there are also supplementary resources available at the PBS web site for further study.
The War is a commendable achievement, but it ends up being far from a definitive take on World War II. Its focus on America's involvement automatically relegates it somewhat to the periphery of the war, and ensures that it can be nothing much greater than a very well produced compendium of evocative memories and footage from that time period. Still, this is a noble pursuit, and the mini-series does succeed in nearly all of its aims. For any filmmaker this would be an unqualified success; for Ken Burns it is a fall from work that is transcendent to work that is merely superior.
Despite my nitpicking, this is still essential viewing. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Making The War Featurette
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