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Oct
04
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 4, 2007  

The War, by Ken Burns, An Overview;

Or, My The War, with apologies to Andy Rooney’s sensibilities.

My last seven reviews on DocumentaryFilms.net came about in a peculiar way. In the words of everyone’s favorite World War II draft dodger, “It began as a mistake.”

I’d seen Burns on Countdown with Keith Olbermann and my ambivalence for his latest project morphed into irrational exuberance. This looked like one hell of a series, and I wanted to catalogue it in full. 

In the days that followed, I decided to tackle this series in a completely different manner. It is telling that the approach I came to turns out to be relatively Luddite in our century. I had decided to watch The War at 7 o’clock CST on the appointed nights, with my rabbit ears tuned to local PBS on a tube television. 

It saddens me that such a television event has had its impact weakened by DVD sales, TiVo and a host of other technological advances in easy chair enjoyment. There were moments when it seemed I was the only person engaging in appointment viewing who hadn’t been around to see World War II the first time. A lonely pursuit, but one I suggest to everyone who wants to enjoy each drop of juice from an epic cultural event. I have weighed whether it might do more harm than good… should everyone succumb to nostalgia and modes of focal practice in my way, the market on Olivetti typewriter ribbons and 78 records might get awfully tight. 

Watching The War in the way we watched The Civil War was rewarding in terms of deferred gratification. To see the first three episodes on my own time, then bits of the fourth, then the build and descent, would rob the series in some way. It could be argued that PBS should have spread the first four out a little more in an effort to minimize my The War fatigue. Maybe, but the experience was rewarding if for no other reason than having something to do four nights a week.

Enough with the Copperfield, then.

The triumphs and the shortcomings of The War border on the inevitable. Much as other Burns works, excepting his Mark Twain feature, The War suffers from dubious distribution. Just as Jazz felt like a never-ending riff on the career of a white Iowa trumpet virtuoso while giving short shrift to the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, The War can be perplexing in its five minute A-Bomb bleeps in relationship to the personal trials of Sascha Weinzheimer. Yes, Weinzheimer, along with everyone else featured in The War, has a compelling story to tell; however, it seems discordant while Winston Churchill enjoys less than a half hour of screen time. 

“This film wasn’t made to mimic what we already have seen about World War II.” Such is the justification for these perilous proportionalities. It would be all well and good if the topic didn’t enjoy a larger-than-life standing in the American mind. 

The War could have come off more successfully if it weren’t for its format. Burns shows us WWII through the eyes of four towns, three of which we’ve heard of. This approach makes for questionable parallels and coincidences, and fails to deliver the emotional impact of, say, the story of four people involved in the European or Pacific Theater, or on the home front. Any four witnesses could have provided us with fifteen hours of gripping drama and pathos. Among them, the tales and thoughts of Eugene Sledge, John Gray, Daniel Inouye and Maurice Bell might have blown the doors off. 

It was not to be. As we crisscross the events of the Second World War, we’re left puzzled. Which battles, conferences, events loomed largest at the time? What was the turning point? Who were the heroes, villains, goats? Why did the European Theater go on so much longer than it should have? How could our nation, when she was the arbiter of truth and goodness, justify the indiscriminate slaughter of August 1945, whose effects lasted throughout the century? All of these questions are addressed, but in glancing blows that serve to dance around the subject.

Two failings come to the surface right away. First, if one chooses to tackle this topic from the perspective of the plain people that fought and won, or worked to facilitate, this victory, then do it. If he wants to document World War II from the top view of the generals and heads of state, do that. To mingle both demands a level of time and discrimination not in evidence. Second, the crooning of Norah Jones at the conclusion of the series (and more disarmingly, three quarters through another episode) diminishes the gravity of the work itself with such lachrymose exhibitionism. 

This judges Burns more as an epic artist than a filmmaker. It should be stated quite clearly that each episode is well worth watching, and that The War provides us with some of the most engaging moments of documentary filmmaking we’re likely to see this year. Were it not for The War’s expectation, accolades, funding and duration, it would surely be a success. When more is expected of you, well, more is expected. 

It will be very interesting to see what Burns comes up with to follow his latest long form documentary. It is hard to imagine that he is at work on another almost daylong film event. Hopefully no one suggests The Cold War as a topic. If we’ve learned anything, it is that Burns flourishes when the subject is tight and biographical. Despite the scope of his larger works, Mark Twain and Unforgivable Blackness are easily his best. There are seas of subjects in this format, some of whom appear in The War

Criticism demands a certain cruelty, which is a bit of a shame. As a casual viewer, there is no reason to regret a single second of The War. As a critical viewer, it is still much more good than bad, and some of the work is marvelous. It isn’t the coup that some expected, but I doubt that a Sunday some years hence could be better spent. At least in front of a television.

Now, back to those Bob Wills records.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Oct
03
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 3, 2007 

Glenn FrazerReviews of previous installments in Ken Burns’ epic undertaking, The War, suggest that there are a whole lot of loose ends that need tying up in the final episode. It is a pleasure to report that many of them are, and in stylish fashion. One would have to expect the finale to live up to the hype preceding the series. In many ways it does, and it stands just behind Episode Three in terms of quality and sheer entertainment value, to say nothing of coherence and consistency.

If one moment stands out head and shoulders above all others, it comes in A World Without War. This remarkable moment could almost be expected, in that it is wholly unexpected, given the context. 

A ton of dramatic, world-shifting events occur in the time period covered by Episode Seven. There’s V-E Day. V-J Day. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The whole gruesome picture of Nazi death camps coming into focus. A filmmaker could easily spend fifteen hours on the preceding alone.

In classic Ken Burns fashion, though, the thing that sticks out in The War has to be an image of a shark.

No witness can boast a more shocking or compelling account than that of Maurice Bell, a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Shortly after delivering its secret cargo (rumored to be a number of things… possibly scented toilet tissue for General MacArthur) to the B-29 fleet, the Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes. Bell recounts his escape from the ship in detail, pushing off with his feet so as not to get sucked in by the sinking vessel’s whirlpool. He, along with a few hundred fellow sailors, survives the night in the dark, surrounded by nothing save vast water and terror. For four days and five nights, they remain stranded at sea. The distress signal was taken for a deceptive ploy on the part of the Japanese. Without food or fresh water, many of the men go mad. As Bell recalls, a number of them would dive to the area of colder water at their feet, thinking it a water fountain below deck. The image conveyed reminds the viewer of Gericault’s painting. 

O, and then came the sharks. 

Every so often, one of Bell’s shipmates would strike the fancy of a local shark. The hapless seaman would be carried below the water, leaving nothing but a pool of blood behind. 

It would be imprudent to equate it with Auschwitz or the hell’s sewer experienced by soldiers and marines on Sugar Loaf Hill, but nothing matches the imagery of this flotilla of the damned in the middle of the Philippine Sea.

With the dramatic climax out of the way, A World Without War segues into the experiences of witnesses in the post-war (or, World War to Cold War transitional) United States. The marriages, vocations and psychological aftermaths of the film’s subjects. There are periods of great poignancy, especially in the case of Babe Ciarlo’s grief-stricken family, Eugene Sledge’s difficulty adjusting to peacetime life, Robert Kashiwagi’s battle for acceptance, John Gray’s experience back in the Old South, knowing that the spoils of victory would not be his, and just about everything dealing with the real star of the series, Glenn Dowling Frazier.

Early on, we’re told of his throwing spare dog tags into a mass grave. He did this so his family could have some closure were his body not to be found. The grave was discovered before his time as a war prisoner, from the Bataan Death March to the second atomic bomb, was finished. The army had confirmed his death and notified his family in the interim; yet, his father refused to believe.

At this point an analogue could be drawn to Babe Ciarlo’s mother. Knowing the outcome, it is probably unfair to suppose that, in the recesses of her heart, Ciarlo’s mother knew all along that her son was indeed a casualty. She scanned newspapers daily for a picture of her son until his body was finally returned.

Frazier’s father seems different. It is hard to argue a person’s instinct, being able to feel that someone is still out there in the flesh. Glenn Dowling’s recollection of his father’s calm demeanor—moments after a his mother, aunt, &c. fell to the ground fainting—when he called from San Francisco to inform the family that the confirmation was a trifle premature suggests something we all sense in an emotionally connected parent. 

Following his homecoming, it would seem that something as elemental as a vanquished love did more harm than his years as a prisoner. So it goes, and the reasoning behind an emotional telling of World War II turns out less suspect.

Though A World Without War brings a satisfying conclusion to the series, it is not without its flaws. Again we are confronted with a proclivity for suspect proportionality in the work of Mr. Burns. It is a welcome development that we might become familiar with the likes of Glenn Dowling Frazier and Eugene Sledge. If book sales for the two don’t see a bit of a spike, it would be a shame.

Even so, it is difficult to reconcile the fact that the only atomic assault in human history, or one of the most ghastly chapters in inhumanity, share inordinately short screen time. In the end, one has to question whether Burns was up to the task of tackling The War. He must be lauded for his ambition, if for no other reason than that it is virtually impossible to do justice to the subject. His approach falls short of the mark, but that doesn’t diminish the fifteen hours of essential viewing for those of us enamored of human struggle, history, or simply the art of documentary filmmaking.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Oct
02
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 2, 2007 

Leading up to 16 December 1944, Americans stationed in the Ardennes referred to their post as “The Ghost Front.” The respite from war’s horrors, however brief, must have been a godsend. 

Brief it was. The German counterattack was something that no one was prepared for, some Germans included. The four-month period covered in The Ghost Front was one of dramatic twists and massive battles. Back at home, news of what would be dubbed The Battle of the Bulge was greeted with a good deal of dread. Just as conventional wisdom seemed to predict a relatively clean and timely conclusion to a war that had dragged on nearly half a decade, events stubbornly pressed forward in the opposite direction. The Allies appeared to cede territory to the Germans, the Japanese remained determined on the Pacific front, and the level of violence from Dresden to the Bonin Islands actually intensified.

The Ghost Front of the Ardennes proved to be anything but. 

Episode Six of The War proceeds much like that time of calm in the forest. It is a series of glimpses at topics that are only partially resolved. Unlike the first five installments, nothing seems definitive. The subjects seem to drown in a sea of details.

To stretch the metaphor, we receive a mountain of statistics delivered in small packages. It would be too much of a stretch to imagine that a concrete image of Iwo Jima was intended to emerge in this dissonance. It is a neat trick, however unintended it might be. 

Where episodes one through five strike up a narrative, however sprawling, The Ghost Front is downright lyrical. The strength of it is in the firsthand footage of winter battles, the recounting of soldiers, spending months in the same clothes without regard to even basic hygiene, the value of a godforsaken bit of volcanic rock measuring eight square miles, and the film of a shellshocked soldier describing his understandable distress at dead men all around him. It is a passage to transition us from the first action to the last.

It is hard to place a criticism on it just yet. Were it a stand alone film, it would be quickly relegated to the dustbin. The same dustbin that we’d throw “Wild Honey Pie” into were it taken as a single. 

With that distinction in mind, and with the understanding that Burns neither claims to be nor should be a polemicist, the lack of social commentary or context in Episode Six cannot be avoided. Where have the 442nd and the African-American soldiers gone? While it suits the storyline to leave the issues of race and class resolved at those moments of recognition, that haircut or medal, these inconsistencies in the American character didn’t go away on Thanksgiving of 1944. The War has progressed in an elliptical sort of perpetual motion. Why did this come to a screeching halt? The viewer doesn’t have to take snaps on Monday morning to wonder why Burns & Co. didn’t take the opportunity to finally approach the attitudes and experiences of Axis soldiers and civilians in some detail. Yes, this is a series about the American experience of the war… ostensibly those of four American cities. While we speak of stretching— in any event, Episode Six effectively kills the rising action without a climax. If an intermezzo was needed, did it have to be 120 minutes in length?

If two hours of Burns’ work could possibly give a viewer The War fatigue, tonight would have to be it. There is a good deal of drama in the events unfolding, but it is certain that punches are being held for the finale. When it comes time to review The War in DVD format, at a time of one’s choosing, this observation could be refuted. As always, there are anecdotes from the subjects that are entertaining, revealing, and jarring. These moments are simple jabs, though, and it can’t be doubted that Burns, after giving and taking some substantial shots in the first eleven rounds, is marshalling his energy for the knockout punch in the twelfth.

Let’s raise a glass to hoping that he studied his subject intently while making Unforgivable Blackness.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.comf


 
Oct
01
    

By Bryan Newbury
October 1, 2007 

“War? The one war I’d be happy to join is the war against officers.” 

No doubt the subjects in Episode Five of The War could relate to Ed Abbey’s sentiment. The War seems to be developing not as a series of acts, as in Henry V. Instead, we’re seeing the story from a different perspective each night. To summarize: night one, the civilians and soon-to-be soldiers; night two, the workers; night three, the collective; night four, the officers and planners; night five, the enlisted men. Vexing though it is that it marches chronologically along to this motif, there is a sense about it. 

In a Harper’s insert (along with many others, presumably) the quote about FUBAR that grabs a person is “[G]enerals make plans, plans go wrong and soldiers die.” True enough, and Episode Five follows this maxim throughout. Whether it is the apparently gross incompetence of Major General John E. Dahlquist near Bruyeres and St. Die or the staged swagger of the larger-than-life Patton, the story returns again to an officer figure of, at best, Celine’s General des Entrayes. The viewer is confronted with an officer corps that resembles a football coach of exceeding arrogance, intent on running out the clock minutes into the third quarter and almost blowing a thirty point lead.

The portrayal is a tad unbalanced. One is compelled to ask throughout The War if it is possible that the Germans or Japanese were good tacticians as well. Sure, plans go wrong. That could have something to do with the fact that for every plan, there’s bound to be another bloke making a counterplan. In the case of Arnhem, for example, it seems that the Germans might have just outfoxed the Allies. FUBAR seems to suggest that intransigence is at the root of this coup. Were the Axis Powers unable to game plan, World War II would have been a marginal skirmish. 

This is not to say that there weren’t critical errors in the fall and winter months of 1944, nor that the bravado of the men barking orders doesn’t often result in countless meaningless deaths among the enlisted ranks. What would you expect to hear if you had the opportunity to get an oral history from those in the front lines?

FUBAR stands out by having that living room feeling. When Quentin Aanenson or Joe Medicine Crow is speaking, the screen seems to disappear. This is one of the stated goals of the project, according to Burns. The Greatest Generation is dwindling, and it will not be long until young people will not have the opportunity to experience these recountings firsthand. Episode Five may just give that vicarious experience for generations to come, and needs not to claim any other social value. Shame that there wasn’t a series of this scope solely for this purpose. 

There is also an intellectual recogniton, in line with the dominant theme, provided by the secret journals of Mobile’s Eugene Sledge. His sentiment, that coming from a culture of life and individualism, the knowledge that you yourself are expendable, isn’t one that we associate with WWII’s zeitgeist. There is a good deal of this type of myth busting in The War, especially Episode Five, and it is welcome. Those of us lucky enough to be brought up around WWII veterans often assume the Brokaw narrative. The men and women of the 1940’s were tougher than we can imagine. No bitching or bellyaching. Just do what you’re told and proceed along stoically. Of course, people are the same throughout time. People didn’t wait until marriage throughout human history, then one day rip off their clothes and begin fornicating openly in 1967. Men didn’t start to lose it on the front in Vietnam. Dissent didn’t begin with John Lennon.  It is a topic of interest, and whatever mask The War has taken off, it is a valuable service. 

At the end of this episode, we are on the brink of the firebombing, the Battle of the Bulge, and Iwo Jima. O, and that occurrence that brought the war to its end. After years of work, The War could be criticised in poetry workshop parlance as “not well crafted.” It would be reasonable to expect a more coherent narrative, beyond the slings and arrows of humble online critics. It won’t make that mark, barring a stunning conclusion. Still, it has us on the edge of our seat, despite knowing the outcome. Plus, we get to hear Keith David utter the word “fucked” a few times in his omniscient tone. For the viewer, little else should be required.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Sep
27
    

By Bryan Newbury
September 27, 2007

“Gentlemen, this is it.” This was Quentin Aaneson’s introduction to combat. Over Omaha Beach, D-Day, Phase Two. 

Episode Four begins with the climactic scenes from the Normandy Invasion. It has been nearly seven hours to this point, and The War is intent on the payoff. After the first three offerings in the series, the accounts of the three phase European entry almost take the viewer by surprise. It has been noted, and Burns has admitted as much, that The War did not seek to go in a conventional direction; rather, it was conceived as a multi-faceted project that seeks to document the war in ways we haven’t seen time and again. The ways of retelling it that made it a knowing joke that the big “H” on the bottom of your screen stood for The Hitler Channel.

This technique is risky. When an artist of any sort attempts to take on a subject of this nature, he is caught in a sort of… forgive me… Catch 22. He can’t tread the well-worn soils that countless others have walked. He must make it new. However, when endeavoring to make it new, he runs the risk of marginalizing major events and shining a spotlight on the marginal ones. To evade this Daedalus design, he is forced to give great sway to the biggest of the big events, while portraying the surrounding events in a novel manner. So far, Ken Burns has managed to avoid the Minotaur. It is early yet to imagine The War as his Ariadne.

Episode Four is great filmmaking. It is also quite a chink in the armor of this series. 

The inherent difficulty in focusing on the personal stories of America and four of her cities at war is that war, by definition, is a rather dramatic enterprise. Pride of a Nation is filled with the drama, the strategy, the blood and toil of battle. As such, it feels a bit out of place. 

Assume, for a moment, that a person started watching The War with little knowledge of World War II. It isn’t exactly a fair assumption, considering the fact that, more than any event in recent history, World War II is omnipresent. Twenty years from now, who knows? When an artist conceives something on this scale, it is fair to apply the twenty-year test. By that time, the attention span of the American public could make that hypothetical citizen a very believable quantity. What might this John Doe take away from the series? 

Again, it isn’t quite fair. Though mammoth in scope, no one imagines that Ken Burns would wish to create the authoritative film history of World War II. If that is the case, why not focus firmly on one event, one campaign, one theater, one city, one soldier, one soldier’s wife? By setting it so broadly, he becomes vulnerable to criticism that would otherwise be absurdly rash.

D-Day does loom large, especially when viewing the war from a very American perspective. (Will there be the stories of German citizens cowering under aerial attack? If one wanted to bring the American viewing public a different angle from which to view the war, this would certainly be a golden subject.) The rub is that, by focusing in on D-Day, it only diminishes the three years of battle that led up to it. Besides, how much is left to see from the Normandy Invasion? 

Saipan is another watershed, and again, Episode Four delivers on its historical representation of just what we imagine those battles must’ve been like. The counterpoint of the 442nd is well-placed. While witnessing the attitude of the Japanese, from admiral to civilian child, choosing suicide over surrender, we get a kind reminder that this outlook served us nicely in the European theater, courtesy of our own Japanese-American soldiers once they were allowed to prove their patriotism. This does the job in maintaining an intellectual balance. This does not solve the imbalance of the first four episodes as a whole.

With three installments to go, our filmmaker is staring down the white bull’s horns. His personal history is getting hijacked by the larger-than-life events that surround the people in question. Unfortunately, the Japanese penchant for shunning surrender feels like a setup for the events of August 1945. It is too early to assume that this will be the case, and possibly we are being fooled with a bit, but if the cynical bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (or even the firebombing of Tokyo) are glossed with the “We had to do it” routine, all could be lost. 

From what we’ve seen thus far, this reviewer is inclined to doubt a ten-thumbed conclusion, with the bunker, Truman’s good faith, and the spawning of suburbia playing out to rosy credits. It is also hard to imagine that the final three episodes will serve to form a coherent project. Should they accomplish this, we might want to find out just who gave Ken Burns the yarn. 

O, I do love cliffhangers.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Sep
26
    

By Bryan Newbury
September 26, 2007

Good popular music can follow any of a number of paths to achieving momentary success. Great popular music must navigate choppier waters. One of the essential disciplines for a great pop album is song placement. The artist and producer weave a complex, but in many ways predictable, emotional pattern. Song placement is key in this endeavor. Almost always, the great album peaks at song four. There is no way of explaining it. Whether it is ten songs or thirteen, whether pensive or exuberant, the key song is always positioned at number four. For the skeptical, the following apply: 1. Everybody Hurts; 2. Thirteen; 3. Veronica; 4. This Is Hell. Elvis Costello occupies two spots.

Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds notwithstanding, it holds true more often than not. Apparently, the same applies to sprawling documentary work.

The War’s Episode Three is that perfect tune. It isn’t necessarily the hit, but it is certainly the piece of work that will stand out thirty years from now, justifying the importance of the project. Like so many of those pieces of music, there isn’t a definitive explanation for why it is exceptional, especially in comparison to the other pieces comprising the whole, but almost everyone eventually accepts the supposition.

It isn’t hard to accomplish tension and emotional upheaval when your subject is World War II. Manipulating those elements into rising and falling action, therefore, is a thankless task. It is expected, despite the difficulty it entails.

Episode Three throws in the kitchen sink.

We begin with racial tension. There is a need for delicacy here. We all know, whether we choose to admit it or not, that the United States in the 1940’s was far from an egalitarian example. The War points out not only the segregation of the Jim Crow South, and the discrimination faced by African-Americans in both the military and civilian world, but also the continuing saga of Japanese-Americans (as a matter of proportion, notice we can say “Japanese” rather than “Asian” American) in the tumult of our battle against the Axis Powers. The delicacy required pertains to the apparent dichotomy of a country that played a major role in defeating fascism while simultaneously denying basic rights to its minority communities.

Much is made of American exceptionalism. It is hard to controvert, considering men like Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i. As the American military displays the gall to recruit in internment camps for the new 442nd Regimental Combat Team (a segregated, Japanese unit allowed to join—or exhibit treason, should they refuse—the fight in 1943) Inouye’s father tells him that “This country has been good to us… we owe a lot to this country… do not dishonor this country.” Where else can a country expect loyalty from those who find themselves incessantly under the boot of their betters? As The War depicts over and over again, this loyalty is obviously in earnest. Without the efforts of the segregated regiments, it would have been difficult at best to prevail. Somehow, America earned their trust more than its majority population.

If the viewer expected to be spared the importance of collective sacrifice, think again. As we segue from those brave men of Senegambian and Japanese, along with Anglo, German and Italian, etc., extraction, another bit of oblique history is accented. In Episode Two it is made quite clear that, rather than strategy or expertise, sheer overproduction was key to victory. Episode Three illustrates another key to victory: recycling. The question is obvious. When was the last time we were asked to save our kitchen fats? Take one less spoon of sugar? Hell, nowadays it would cause a rebellion if we spared a few thousand Congolese lives to do without the same amount of Play Stations. Point taken.

Issues of mutual effort and ethnic inequality eventually give way to those personal stories Burns hinges the entire series upon. While we’re throwing in the kitchen sink… well, let us say that Babe Ciarlo’s correspondence reaches climax.

More and more, The War reminds us of The Old Testament. While absorbing it, we observe that much of it is scattered, irritating and absurd. And, in some inexplicable way, absolutely necessary for all projects of its kind to follow.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Sep
25
    

By Bryan Newbury
September 25, 2007

If Herodotus is history’s father, we might nominate Celine his counterpart in terms of twentieth century war analysis. As he recounts his experiences with the World Wars, as a soldier, citizen and sometime refugee, the primary component… aside from war’s mindlessness, brutality and exacerbating class divide… of his evaluation comes down to a sense of randomness.

As Ken Burns’ The War continues, the viewer is assailed with what seems to be a designed randomness.

The concept, for starters, seems to employ the dart-to-map strategy. The War is told as a series of chapters in municipal biographies. The four towns (Waterbury, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama) are representative of our distinct geographic and cultural areas. That said, the selection of four communities in the United States to represent our nation at war tends to improvise on that theme of arbitrariness.

Earlier, this reviewer referred to the “Bix Beiderbecke moment” one can expect in a Ken Burns documentary. In The War, Episode Two, that seems to come in the shape of an intense focus on the Weinzheimer family in Sacramento and The Philippines while the Battle of Midway receives a mention almost in passing.

The War’s focus is not on historians or tacticians, though. Through the stories of “common” individuals, Burns endeavors to get at the gestalt. He is to be commended for a unique approach, eschewing “all things Nazi” or the time-tested technique of men with scrambled egg hats poring over charts and troop movements. This method, while novel, does come with problems.

The Beiderbecke phenomenon is the result of those problems. It is evident that, while looking at these average Americans, the sense of perspective is skewed. After all, Eisenhower is more important than most.

But this is nitpicking. Episode Two is a striking two hours of film. From the North African front to the European air engagements to Mobile shipyards, the totality of World War II is portrayed with clarity. Just as this tightrope act appears in peril of falling off into a haphazard telling, the film manages to hit just the right transition. It is quite remarkable. When it seems that an entire year of trench and air warfare, rations, and, for the most unlucky, internment, is progressing along just a bit too fast, a wonderful monologue on what the infantryman faced on a constant basis rights the ship. When one questions the precision of a narrative that pits the under trained but increasingly well-equipped Americans against the sophisticated and professional Axis forces, he soon finds himself blushing at the incisive descriptions of military strategy and collective sacrifice on the home front. If the Japanese look barbaric in their treatment of prisoners, Executive Order 9066 looks us right in the eye. In case you think the portrayal of our loyal public is coming too close to a back patting for your comfort, we learn about the prevalence of black market purchases during the time of rationing. Et cetera. Et cetera.

It would be unwise to continue without mentioning these individuals that represent our wartime society. There is a need to entertain, and in this regard the pacing is spot-on. In the first episode, Katharine Phillips steals the show. Who can resist a southern belle in full flower? In the following episode, the letters of Babe Ciarlo are compelling. Future episodes will develop other interview subjects to a crescendo.

The approach is imprecise but engaging. Again, we find ourselves in an amusing predicament. At this point, what is left to tell about WWII? Still, The War concludes its second night with a cliffhanger. Can Burns and Co. hang on without spiraling into soap opera? So far, the answer has to be in the affirmative.

—–

Click here to read all of Newbury’s writing on The War.

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Sep
24
    

By Bryan Newbury
September 24, 2007

Ah, The Good War.

Despite pronouncements by soldiers far and wide, one of who plays an integral part in the latest epic documentary project of Ken Burns, that there is no such thing as a good war, all Americans seem to know instinctively that there is indeed. To finish the statement above, though there are no good wars, there are necessary wars. If we are honest with ourselves, the opposite is probably true from the Peloponnesian campaign to Guadalcanal. To refer to a war as necessary by definition extends a value judgment… and in the case of The Big One, at least for the United States, the verdict is overwhelming.

A good war, it seems, is what we are so desperately lacking these days. When considering the Axis Powers, we can conjure images of evil despite the cartoonish posture of Mussolini or the comical moustache Hitler sported. The “gathering threats” of Messrs Hussein and Ahmadinejad seem laughable when considering the challenges of the Anglo Saxon world in the 1940’s. 

Burns does well to assert this difference, albeit in a rather subtle way. The filmmaker has given a number of interviews, which allude to the substantial differences between WWII and our current endeavors in the Middle East. When the subject of collective sacrifice comes up in Episode One, only the most tin-eared observer can miss the comparison.

Anyone familiar with the Burns oeuvre doesn’t need to be told that The War will not be a firebrand’s polemic against American empire. Every detail, ranging from the street addresses of the interviewees to the ubiquitous narration of Keith David, points to a continuation in the Burns body of work. 

Early on, the question seems to be whether or not he can sustain the subject.  The subject, like so much in the Ken catalogue, isn’t all that surprising. Burns has never demurred from America’s larger themes. The Civil War. Our greatest novelist. Our national pastime. One of our two contributions to world culture. Why not tackle the sacred cow of twentieth century America? Of course, one could reasonably accuse him of painting with the broadest of brushes. What is there to profit from an examination of arguably the most examined period in contemporary history? 

This question will be borne out by the seventh episode. Considering the first 150 minutes, it is fair to say that the goal just might be achieved.

Through each turn, The War accomplishes an element of surprise. 

The discerning viewer finds himself questioning Burns’s motives, only to castigate himself when the film acquits itself of any accusation of jingoism. Good war or no, the atmosphere of xenophobia must’ve been palpable during the Second World War. In one moment, we begin to doubt the objectiveness of the film, as footage and stories from Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March seem to cultivate a propagandistic approach. The next, we’re faced with actual propaganda from newsreels and Executive Order 9066. The latter placed the Japanese in America, regardless of citizenship, into internment camps along with German and Italian aliens. It is only natural to assume the side of the victors in this conflict, but The War goes the extra mile thusfar in broadening the scope of ideas.

The question remains: how broad? Should The War sustain its catholic perspective from the invasion of Poland to the mass murder of Hiroshima, it could be an epochal piece of filmmaking. If it diverges in the woods right around the Bix Beiderbecke mile marker, we might have to wait for a nine part series on The Great Depression.

—–

A film by Ken Burns

Color and Black & White, 2007

Purchase The War at Amazon.com


 
Nov
28
    

WALPOLE, N.H. (AP) – Ken Burns thought he was done with war movies after his series “The Civil War.” But he says two troubling statistics fuelled the creation of “The War,” a 14-hour documentary about the Second World War.

“It was really a couple of statistics that got me,” Burns said. “One was that we’re losing a thousand (Second World War) veterans a day, and the other is that our children just don’t know what’s going on.”

Burns said he was astonished at the number of high school graduates who believe the United States fought with the Germans in the Second World War.

“That to me was terrifying, just stupefying,” said Burns, who will show the first two-hour instalment of “The War” to Dartmouth College on Dec. 1.

The series follows four American towns – Waterbury, Conn., Mobile, Ala., Sacramento, Calif., and Luverne, Minn. – through the war years, focusing both on the soldiers from the towns sent to war and the families and friends left behind. “The point of view is from ordinary people, who do the fighting and who do the dying in all wars,” Burns said.

© The Canadian Press 2006

 
Nov
08
    
It’s apparently OK to say the S-word on TV — as long as it’s on a program that the Federal Communications Commission says even faintly resembles a news show.

The FCC reversed itself Tuesday and deemed acceptable a Survivor contestant’s use of the obscenity during an interview on a December 2004 episode of The Early Show on CBS. The contestant used a vulgar term for “smooth talker” to describe a fellow contestant on Survivor: Vanuatu.

Full USA Today article.

By allowing a entertainment interview on a morning “news” show to be exempt from the strict standards, controversy about documentary content should largely go away. Ken Burns’ “The War” use of profanity in combat footage and interviews should no longer be a issue that might have kept some PBS affiliates from running it.


 
Sep
10
    

A chapter of Ken Burns’ upcoming, 15-hour documentary War also received a sneak preview. French director Bertrand Tavernier (Sunday in the Country, ‘Round Midnight) said that he had watched all of War and that it ranked among the greatest films he’d ever seen.

I can’t think of anything that would have made me more eager to see Burns’ epic World War II documentary than that kind of endorsement from a director whose knowledge of film remains unsurpassed.

Rocky Mountain News


 
Jul
31
    

[PBS CEO Paula Kerger]: “My point to them is that we, as public television, don’t have the resources to try to understand what they’re thinking,” said Kerger, who won big points with reporters for her forthright comments. “I can’t tell you, as I stand here today, that I have a clear understanding” of whether PBS stations could face fines for airing the Burns documentary — with language intact — before 10 p.m.

“When you look at the indecency rulings as they have transpired, I don’t see a clear path. Right now, it’s a moving target.”

The context for the concern is that KCSM, the San Mateo-based public TV station, is facing a $15,000 fine from the FCC for a repeat showing of an episode of Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues” that included a smattering of blue language. The FCC acted even though it got just one complaint and “The Blues” was shown all across the country without issue.

Full Mercury News story by Charlie McCollum