Ken Burns continues his long march through key passages in U.S. history with “The War,” a characteristically serious, patriotic yet flawed account of Americans and their memories of World War II. Utterly of a piece with the work of PBS’ favorite documaker, this 14-hour epic contains a fresh wrinkle only in that there’s no parade of history experts to offer a distanced perspective. Rather, Burns has made a deliberately populist American version of the so-called “good war,” with all the assets and deficits that entails. Cannes fest launch predated September broadcast, sure to lock up a new batch of older PBS subscribers.
Burns (credited here as co-director with Lynn Novick, though pic is billed as “a film by Ken Burns”) must now be declared, stylistically and thematically, the most conservative of all major U.S. documakers. The familiar Burns formula is aggressively applied here: a storytelling strategy that tackles big topics through useful but often miscalculated narrative prisms, and a filmmaking approach that blends warmly lit interviews, carefully selected photographs, archival film footage, written material of the period voiced by actors, and a text written by Geoffrey C. Ward and spoken in a voice-of-God manner. (God’s voice this time belongs to the elegant Keith David.)
Although his subject this time is global, Burns’ style is unwaveringly nationalistic, and his decision to explore America’s role in WWII through the perspectives of vets and residents from four corners of the country creates a central problem that only grows deeper with each of the seven episodes. Very much like the choice to tell the story of “Jazz” via the distorted influence of Wynton Marsalis, or the story of “Baseball” through the blinkered view of New York City, the framework becomes a severe limitation that denies viewers a great deal of what made WWII the central event of the 20th century.
The episodes are crafted to run about two hours each, with the initial chapters covering longer swatches of time and latter chapters concentrating on only a few months each. Opening minutes, as well as several interludes throughout, will call to mind Tom Brokaw’s description of WWII as the act of “the greatest generation.” But to Burns’ credit, he also gives equal weight to the harsh reality that the war was a savage business, viciously waged on all sides.
The realities of life in Sacramento, Calif.; Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; and Waterbury, Conn., are recounted in episode one alongside the growing menace from Japan, finally exploding with the unprovoked Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The figures who prove to be most valuable to Burns’ narrative are unveiled here, including POW survivor Glenn Frazier; exceptionally thoughtful fighter pilots Quentin Aarenson, Sam Hynes and Earl Burke; Mobile resident Katharine Phillips, whose vivid, witty and textured memories of Stateside life are easily a series highlight; Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who saw the first Japanese planes over Pearl Harbor and won the Medal of Honor after fighting on the Euro front lines; Sacramento farm girl Sascha Weinzheimer, held in brutal captivity in a little-known Japanese concentration camp for Allied civiliansin Manila; and John Gray, who offers the view of a young black man in the South during the war.
As always with Burns’ work, on-camera participants apply a great deal of the project’s human touch, reaping several rewarding passages, including Burke’s exceptional description of air fights over Germany in episode two that are precisely matched with brilliantly edited battle footage (by supervising editor Paul Barnes and episode editor Erik Ewers), and the lucky Aarenson’s wildly improbable stories of multiple brushes with death.
Despite Burns’ efforts to draw a portrait of the war as a domestic as well as foreign event, accounts of the conflict itself utterly blow away everything else, including such charged social aspects as the Japanese-American internment camps and women’s liberation of sorts on the assembly line.
When compared to the blistering stories of such Pacific battles as those on the islands of Guadalcanal, Saipan and Peleliu, or the Bataan death march endured by Frazier, or the European battles of Anzio, Normandy and the lesser-known and horrific Hurtgen Forest, little else registers with anywhere near as much power.
As such, WWII as a whole is short-shrifted in “The War,” with such enormous conflicts as the Japanese conquest of East Asia and the painfully protracted but finally victorious Soviet defense against Hitler’s invading armyeither ignored altogether or reduced to a footnote, merely because the U.S. wasn’t involved.
In the wake of Clint Eastwood’s two-part Iwo Jima epic, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which distinguished itself by dramatizing American and Japanese perspectives, Burns’ approach looks exceedingly parochial. It also opens up speculation that a war account portraying four towns in four different countries would have captured more of the conflict’s global reality, while retaining the intended populist view.
Soundtrack retains Burns’ usual trademarks: stentorian narration and text readings by thesps (Rebecca Holtz and Bobby Cannavale’s vocal perfs as, respectively, little Sascha and soldier Babe Ciarlo, are gems). Nothing in the pic better conveys the war’s existential angst than Josh Lucas’ reading of the uncensored, graphic and bitter diary entries of vet Eugene Sledge, drawn from his book, “With the Old Breed.”
Marsalis once again makes his presence felt in a Burns film, this time with an uneven quasi-jazz score. While music selections from Kayhan Kalhor, Edgar Meyer, Alfred Schnittke and Olivier Messaen elevate pic, an original song by Gene Scheer (sung by Norah Jones) is pure hooey.