A monumental undertaking filled with moments of tremendous poignancy, “The War” reps Ken Burns’ return to the battlefield, and he comes away with a major victory for PBS, albeit in a production lacking the thrill of discovery and freshness that distinguished its predecessor, “The Civil War.” Methodically documenting World War II’s progression chronologically through the experiences of those in four geographically spaced towns, “The War” captures both the sweeping impact of a conflict that inexorably changed the world and the hardships endured by those who fought the battle at home as well as abroad.
In part, this seven-night, 15-hour marathon is victimized by just how much screentime has already been devoted to these events, making it easy to let one’s mind drift to some movie or documentary — “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” “Patton,” etc. — chronicling a given aspect of the story. From that perspective, “The Civil War” benefited from the bracing approach of using letters and stills to document a prevideo conflict.
Still, Burns and collaborators Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward unearth breathtaking new footage (much of it in color) and flesh out the imagery with on-camera testimony from those who survived the war, creating a fitting tribute to how ordinary people can respond — in ways inspiring and heartbreaking — to extraordinary times.
To that extent, this has the sense of a definitive work, one that will speak not only to the World War II generation but to those who have lived under the blanket of their sacrifice — provided that PBS can entice a younger audience to tune in.
The most significant quibble here is structural. By proceeding in chronological fashion, Burns deals with part of a soldier’s experience and then abandons him, rapidly shifting from the home front — in the towns of Mobile, Ala.; Luverne, Minn.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Waterbury, Conn. — to the European theater to the Pacific. As such, just when some stories begin to get interesting, that character is left, only to be returned to hours (and given the broadcast pattern, nights) later.
Far from whitewashing the war or seeking to shower those who fought in glory, Burns and Novick endeavor to present the conflict in all its “unimaginable brutality,” as narrator Keith David soberly intones, costing the lives of anywhere from 50 million to 60 million people.
Those interviewed recall the long-ago events in riveting detail, often breaking down at the memories. “We had no rights,” says Asako Tukuno, a Japanese-American college student when she was shipped off to an internment camp.
“The War” starts slowly, partially mirroring the U.S.’ lack of preparedness, with a puny standing army before 1940 and scant ability to supply its forces — deficiencies that were met and overcome with remarkable ingenuity. The narrative gains momentum as the Americans learn to fight, peaking in the third, fourth and seventh installments.
Despite the evenhanded tone, the segments are punctuated by emotional highs — the letters of a slain soldier (“Nothing ever happens here,” he reassuringly tells his worried mother), the recollections of fighter pilot Quentin Aanenson and the astonishing bravery of Daniel Inouye, a member of the much-decorated Japanese-American 442nd unit and later six-term senator from Hawaii who lost his arm while single-handedly dispatching a trio of German machine-gun nests.
Both combatants and filmmakers endeavor to demythologize war where, they stress, no amount of skill, courage or athleticism could ensure survival. “The shell hit somebody who was not yourself,” recalls one soldier, adding “pure luck” often determined who lived or died.
Many of the images are haunting: the D-Day landing, made more surreal by knowing this is actual footage, not a Steven Spielberg production; the ferocity and enormous casualties of the Japanese at Okinawa; the corpses of barely pubescent boys in German uniforms, as young and old alike were desperately conscripted as the war wound down; bodies strewn at meaningless battles; the leveling of Dresden; footage of shell-shocked soldiers; the discovery of the Nazi death camps; the devastation of Hiroshima.
“I live in a world of death,” Aanenson, a soft-spoken Minnesotan, writes to his fiance, whom he had met during the war and asked to wait for him. “I am not the same person you said goodbye to.”
Inevitably, not everything works quite so well, such as having Tom Hanks read the words of a Minnesota newspaper columnist, which feels saccharine and predictable. Given the length, more time could also have been devoted to the war’s immediate aftermath, such as the way Mobile’s black population came home to unabated prejudice and segregation, which helped give rise to the civil rights movement.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that prebroadcast complaints about the film overlooking Hispanics, criticism which Burns addressed by incorporating additional material, seem misguided. Even at 15 hours, Burns cannot tell every story, and the format is constructed around linear time and geography, with the various stories regarding African-Americans and Japanese-Americans (the latter interred at home while sons and siblings valiantly fought in Europe) growing organically out of that approach.
As controversies go, then, the tempest in this teapot contains a weaker brew than most — one of the few places, actually, where the term “weak” can be used in conjunction with “The War.”