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Oct
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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



Comments:
gordon on March 25th, 2011 at 10:13 pm 

I saw an acquaintance in photo with Hitler & SS officers in a documentary. The Office of Special Investigations is very interested but things are at a stand still unless I can find that show. It aired around 2007 4 night in the summer–CBS, PBS or Fox? Where do I go?Please contact Gordon 1154 Melbourne Dr. NewHaven, In. or 260-493-6043


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