The War
directed by Ken Burns
(Florentine, 2007)

Filmmaker Ken Burns again has come into our living rooms and tells another sprawling history lesson with the seven-part PBS series The War. He makes use of an astounding array of film footage: hours of rough battle scenes in scratchy black-and-white, newsreels, home movies, raw color film from the decks of aircraft carriers, heartbreaking scenes from the home front of birthday parties and dances -- The War uses a lot of film in its 15 hours.

The War is, by far, his most visually oriented epic to date. So why does it seem exhausted rather than exhaustive? For all the examples of brave infantrymen and sailors in battle (and the field photographers who filmed them), the shocking confusion of combat, as well as the endless and incredibly harrowing scenes of the dead and dying, it would be hard to describe The War as dynamic, or even compelling, storytelling.

Burns has stated that his intention was to tell the story of World War II featuring those who fought on the fronts and waited at home, rather than the politicians and generals. He would tell the story of the 20th century's watershed event from the bottom up, rather from the top down. As admirable as this goal is, the effect of such storytelling dilutes the impact of the events themselves -- and makes The War a confusing whole.

Maybe it's because there is such an enormous other story to tell: a global conflict revealing humanity's worst and best, uncertain outcomes, personal and tactical gambles that fail (a segment of The War is titled "FUBAR"). Because the families who live and work on the home front receive the news in daily newspapers, radio broadcasts and weekly newsreels, as well as letters home, they hear of the war in distant, yet frightening echoes. The War tries to stitch these two threads together, but doesn't often succeed.

For all the visual material available to Burns and his production team, the documentary becomes most vivid when it focuses on the experiences of families, mostly through letters and photographs. Babe Ciarlo writes nonchalant letters to his family back in Waterbury, Connecticut, revealing nothing of the horrors at Anzio beach. "I am in the best of health and hope to hear the same from all of you always. Well, things hear are moving pretty smooth and the only thing I do is eat and sleep and if I keep it up much longer I'll be a barrel. Love, Babe." After these breezy letters stopped arriving and the telegram of his death arrived after that, Ciarlo's mother scanned newspapers looking at the photos and seeing her dead son, asking her family to contact the papers and ask if that soldier might be Babe, whom she knew was still alive.

These heartbreaking stories make Hitler and Emperor Hirohito seem a very distant evil. The relentless push to Berlin, and to Tokyo in the east, provide a welcome momentum to the documentary. They are a reminder of the ultimate goal, if not the purpose of The War as a documentary. After all the confusion and death and gruesome sacrifice of those on the battlefield -- and there is a lot, in 15 hours -- the stories of those at home (presented in all heartfelt sympathy) can't carry the weight they are meant to.

The result on The War is, as war itself is often described, "hours of endless waiting, followed by periods of sheer terror." By default Burns is becoming PBS's "America's historian." Here he presents World War II as the television equivalent of a coffeetable book: heavy, ponderous, oversized and not meant to be viewed in a single sitting. With lots and lots of pictures.

review by
Mark Bromberg

15 December 2007

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