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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

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