03 October 2007

The War

This past week, PBS has been airing Ken Burns' new documentary about World War II. The seven-part, fifteen-hour series wrapped up last night...but if you missed it, don't worry. PBS will be airing it again this fall on Wednesday evenings --- beginning tonight.

And if you missed it, I cannot recommend highly enough that you see it the second time around. It is right up there with "The Civil War" and "Baseball." An instant classic, and something I plan on burning to DVD to keep for years.

Like all Ken Burns documentaries, it is superbly written and produced. Burns is a master of interspersing archival video with contemporary interviews, and overlaying narration or interviews with historical photographs in a way that both evokes a deep emotional response and teaches intelligently. He goes for both the heart and the head, and usually manages to hit both of them dead on. The current documentary is no exception.

What is most outstanding about The War is it is told through the eyes and experiences of the people who were there. The interviews are all done with survivors; we never have historians intrude to teach lessons. When it is necessary to broaden the perspective, Burns cuts to newsreels being shown in theaters back home --- so, again, we see and experience WWII in the same way a 1940s civilian would have, and not as a history professor would lecture.

Another excellent technique Burns uses to is focus on four individual towns, building a cast of characters from those places and sticking with them from start to finish. The documentary isn't strictly limited to these towns, however, and we do meet survivors from other places. But by constantly returning to the four towns, it helps bring the enormity of WWII down to a more human scale.

And that, I think, is what this documentary does best: it shows how the entire nation experienced the war, and how it drew all of us together. WWII literally left no family untouched; I'd known that intellectually, but this documentary really brings that to life. I found myself frequently wishing I could call my grandfather, who was a career Naval officer, and ask him to tell me more about the events that took place in the South Pacific --- or my other grandparents, who experienced WWII stateside --- but unfortunately all of them have passed away. And I found myself grateful that Burns made this documentary when he did, while enough of the original participants were still living and could give a coherent account of the original events.

The images that will stick most firmly in my mind are the brief shots we see of Catholic priests celebrating Mass on the decks of ships (sometimes on small and crowded troop transport boats), and of battle-weary Marines in tattered clothing kneeling in the sand to receive Holy Communion.

Another thing that really struck me: watching these 80 and 90 year olds getting choked up and wiping tears as they recalled learning about the passing of Franklin Roosevelt. More than 60 years later, and those memories still evoke those kinds of emotions; I can't imagine anything comparable for our generation.

The only way in which I think it falls short of The Civil War and Baseball is in the music. The music in The War is nice, but it's mostly 1940s jazzy stuff and Sinatra. There is also an original score by Wynton Marsalis that is used to excellent effect. But I think the music in The Civil War and Baseball was better because those scores used a great number of variations on just one or two songs, which gave the whole documentary a somewhat more unified feel. But in the scheme of things, that is a quibble. Another quibble is the narration; I preferred John Chancellor (Baseball) and David McCullough (Civil War) to Keith David.

In telling a story this vast, some things by necessity must be left out. I did think it odd we never saw the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, but that may have been by design --- we all know that story, and it's been done to death. Others will have different specific events that they were looking for and didn't see mentioned. We got the usual litany of groups "other than Jews" exterminated in the Holocaust (homosexuals, gypsies, the handicapped, etc), but no mention of faithful Catholics (i.e. Sts. Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein). There was also no mention of "celebrities," such as JFK and PT 109, George H. W. Bush being shot down, the death of Joseph Kennedy, Jr., etc --- and the omission of these "American celebrities" was actually refreshing. I'm glad Burns stayed disciplined and kept the focus more on the ordinary people than on folks we have all heard of.

The one exception is the amount of screen time given to Daniel Inouye. Granted, I doubt the typical American knows Inouye is a U.S. Senator (though this is mentioned toward the end, almost as an afterthought), and his Medal-of-Honor-winning heroics on the battlefield (while his government kept other Japanese Americans interned in camps back home) make for a truly compelling story. But I kept waiting for even a single mention of Bob Dole; after all, both he and Inouye were severely injured while fighting in Italy in the spring of 1945 --- and the two became lifelong friends when they were recovering from their injuries at the same Army hospital in Michigan. I guess this is the only omission that really surprised me, given how hard Burns worked to keep the Baseball documentary politically balanced (Mario Cuomo got quite a bit of screen time, but so did George Will).

I know I have some readers who have ditched their televisions, and I salute them for it. But if you can see fit to drag the thing out of the closet for just one media event, I highly recommend that this be the one. It is truly outstanding, and television at its best.


Tim Hopkins said...

Hi Yeoman Farmer, This is interesting because Gary North really didn't care for this latest Ken Burns piece. See what you think of his comments. I'd be interested to hear your response.

TYF said...

Tim - I first came across Gary North in the runup to Y2K; I remember him as among the most vocal alarmists of "the coming crisis." At that time, I read more of his commentary than I care to admit, and it made me more alarmed about Y2K than I now like to admit. I have tried to aviod him as much as possible in the years since. I believe this commentary about The War is the first thing of his I have read since Y2K.

I agree with some of North's comments (particularly about the Marine pilot and religion), but disagree in the larger picture. WWII is an enormous story, and all of it cannot be told in one documentary. The incidents North points out as omissions I was all familiar with, from having watched History Channel documentaries that dedicated upwards of an hour (or sometimes two hours) to a single incident. Would The War have been stronger with at least a reference to them? Perhaps. But Burns wasn't trying to teach military history a la the History Channel so much as to show and describe an enormous event through the eyes of a small group of people --- small enough so we could keep track of them and grow to identify with their perspective. In that, Burns was a big success. And Burns did not purport to do more than that.

Laurie said...

What a great review. The last two weeks of my life have been on hold in order to watch every second of "The War." It has enriched my understanding of what it was like on all fronts to live through that catastrophic event.

From the many, many documentaries I have seen about various aspects of WWII I have learned the basic facts, the greater ramifications, the foreshadowing of events to come, the Monday morning quarterbacking. What I have not gotten much of, until Ken Burns created this marvelous documentary, was what a marine on Okinawa might have been thinking. Or how a beach master (term?) at Normandy got through that day. Or what a girl in Alabama knew and understood about each day's events.

I have many family stories from my parents and grandparents to provide some texture, and I treasure them -- not only as family lore, but also as a view to a world that I can't get from history books. Ken Burns has allowed all of us into these people's living rooms for seven evenings. Burns has given us all a collective family lore of WWII.

As for Gary North's opinion, I think he himself says it best: "So what?"

Anonymous said...


Thanks for insight. I didn't have a chance to see this series, but may give it a whirl.