Back to War
For many docuphiles — particularly worshippers at the altar of grainy footage, dulcet-toned narrators and the slick packaging of dead-and-gone ages — a new multipart Ken Burns film is the serious-television equivalent of General MacArthur’s promised triumphal return to an abandoned Philippines. No, he wasn’t dawdling while you bided time with snacklike History Channel assemblages and one-night-only (lazy!) American Experience programs. It’s been six years since Burns’ 19-hour race-and-music epic Jazz unfolded like the longest solo ever, and before that it was the nine-inning — or, more temporally accurate considering the sport, nontuple-header — Baseball. What would come next? Earth? Fire? Love?
Turns out he and collaborators Lynn Novick (producer/director) and Geoffrey C. Ward (writer) have gone back to armed conflict, the general subject of Burns’ most notable achievement. The Civil War and its exhaustive, expansive mixture of research mastery, cinematographic presentation of still photography, and homey letter-reading by actors — all in the service of elegant, backward-looking poignancy — became a television (and not just public television) phenomenon. It cemented Burns the documentarian as a gifted — if too lachrymose — teller of tales past. “Emotional archaeologist” is how Burns has referred to himself, and he’s right: He never met a fact or figure or statistic he couldn’t turn into a deep feeling. You may find his work — and it’s a supremely identifiable aesthetic, as much as Woody Allen’s one-liners, Edward Hopper’s paintings or Thelonious Monk’s chords — to be agonizingly slow and willfully unanalytical, but it’s rarely dry.
Now Burns has turned his attentions to World War II, that monumental 20th-century pivot point that killed more than 50 million and was known to all who lived through it as “The War,” and, surprisingly, Burns doesn’t try to wrap his empathetic arms entirely around his massive topic. His grand subject matter is intrinsic Americana, anyway; consequently, this 14-hour (short for him), seven-night behemoth is solely the story of Uncle Sam’s involvement in that global event — from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day — and is even further concentrated through the experiences of men and women who came from four U.S. towns: Luverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; and Sacramento, California. While that means no recollections from London blitz survivors, Red Army soldiers, French Resistance fighters, brutalized Chinese, occupied Poles, witnesses to Nagasaki’s destruction or even ex-Hitler Youth, Burns’ film is no less vivid because its immortalized memories are from one part of the winning side. What his participants offer up are often unique, painful and unforgettable moments: reading the dreaded telegram relaying your brother’s death to your mother because she doesn’t speak English; ignoring a just-exploded colleague’s brains on the map you’re intently studying because if you lose focus, the men you have in the air will die; drinking worm-infested rice water in a Japanese-controlled prison camp in Manila when you’re only 10; and hearing a captured teenage Nazi soldier explain exactly where your hometown is because he’s been trained to prepare for the takeover of the United States.
The interviewees are an incredible, thought-provoking and lively bunch, and whenever their time-weathered faces and voices take over from Burns’ typically excellent chronology-keeping narrator, Keith David, it’s as if you’re sitting cross-legged at these people’s feet, looking up at them in an easy chair they’ve surely earned. Mobile-ite Katharine Phillips’ humorous remembrances of keeping the home fires burning are a kick. Luverne native Quentin Aanensen is quietly forceful and effortlessly poetic when describing the controlled chaos of being a fighter pilot. Sacramento resident Burnett Miller is like an apple-cheeked grandpa through most of the episodes but can barely get out his account of liberating a concentration camp and discovering a halted hell. And perhaps most gruelingly, there’s the growing sense over the course of Burns’ film that POW Glenn Frazier — who experienced the Bataan Death March and a host of other cruelties — is a living miracle of survival.
Naturally Burns has found reading material for famous people, too, but this device is rarely the crutch it’s been in previous efforts. I found the small-town-stoic newspaper columns of Minnesotan Al McIntosh — read by Tom Hanks — too achingly dignified for my taste. But Bobby Cannavale’s rendition of a Waterbury son’s strainingly peppy, eerily detail-less letters to his worried family are heartbreaking in what they avoid. And almost as a counter-performance, there’s the gut-punch-honest diary entries of Pacific theater Marine mortarman Eugene Sledge, whose gritty, philosophical and stinging words about combat — which were eventually published — are read with an almost acrid tenderness by Josh Lucas.
Unfortunately not all types of war-era Americans are included, as has been noted by outraged Latino veterans who, when they learned of their omission earlier this year, demanded Burns include stories of their service. When I first heard of the protests, my instinct was to give Burns the benefit of the doubt as a filmmaker who can choose how he wants to present his work. But now, having seen the whole thing — and how it stirringly recounts the travails of interned Japanese-Americans who had to prove their loyalty on the battlefield (like Senator Daniel J. Inouye, who isn’t from one of the four towns), not to mention the needless segregation of ready-to-fight black soldiers and discrimination against black laborers in defense-industry boomtowns — I’m more sympathetic. Even if their racial status wasn’t as oppressive as African-Americans’ or freedom-stripped citizens of Japanese descent, leaving out Hispanics was an odd choice for this most race-sensitive of filmmakers. (Perhaps finally chastened after similar complaints regarding the blip-length mention of Latinos in Baseball and Jazz, Burns has created supplemental material regarding the service of Hispanic Americans that will run after some of the episodes.)
There is Norah Jones, however, to heal all wounds. Burns has the Starbucks chanteuse mumble-warbling a melancholy tune called “American Anthem” a couple of times over his carefully spliced war footage (slowed down, of course), and it grates like the Hallmark ad you’d expect it to be. This maudlin instinct of Burns’ is regrettable considering the lengths he goes to to stress the disturbing carnage levels of World War II and the sheer terror of being an infantryman, plus his proven effectiveness at moving us without the plaintive music cues. His evocation of the long-awaited storming of Normandy, for example, is in its way as unique as Spielberg’s hyperviolent staccato dramatization in Saving Private Ryan because he can also convey the national hush that accompanied news of the invasion back home, as if the American body had chosen to take a collective breath so it could spiritually exhale all its hopes and prayers toward its fighting extremities on the shores of France. (Implicitly, too, in detailing the huge effort at home to give, give, give, it damns the inability of our current leaders to connect us to a sense of shared sacrifice in our present state of war.) And surprisingly, or perhaps not, given the previous 13 hours of death reporting and the colossal impact of all the battle footage (a good deal of it in its original color exposure, which was changed to black-and-white for newsreels), Burns lays out an argument for the use of the atomic bomb that brings everything back to the most elemental question of any war: What will stop the loss of life for your side and end the damn thing?
Perhaps the best thing about The War — the one that most blunts the greatest-generation flag-waving we’ve so often been subjected to when it comes to this period — is that when it isn’t trying to tug at your heartstrings, it’s psychologically grinding. The cumulative effect wears on you to the point where hearing that there’s one more mission to fly, hill to take or island to invade is its own kind of heart-stopping dread. That could be seen as a risky endeavor when you’re asking viewers to keep coming back for seven nights, but this is General Burns, after all, conqueror of yesteryear. And you probably will return.
THE WAR | PBS | begins Sunday, September 23, 8 p.m.-10:30 p.m. and continues Mon. through Wed., Sept. 24-26, 8 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun., Sept. 30, 8 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Mon., Oct. 1 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Tues., Oct. 2, 8 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.