The War

By Murphy, Brian John | America in WWII, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The War


Murphy, Brian John, America in WWII


The War, directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, written by Geoffrey C. Ward, Florentine Films, 14 hours, now available with supplemental material on six DVDs, $129.99.

DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS have tried to grasp the wholeness of the Second World War for the past six decades with varying degrees of success. One of the first comprehensive looks at the war was one of the best: NBC's television landmark Victory at Sea. It has long been the benchmark against which all WWII documentaries have been measured. Now the long-form television documentary returns with The War--the seven-part, fourteen-hour series by directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that aired this September on PBS. Burns and Novick have created the best WWII documentary since the NBC series of more than 50 years ago.

The War makes no attempt to detail the war on all its many fronts from 1939 to 1945. Instead, it aspires to be an epic of the American involvement from 1941 to 1945. It achieves that goal, but in a manner that is unusual for the genre. Instead of giving us the usual extended reel of combat highlights of the war, Burns and Novick bring us a story of individuals and communities. Set against the backdrop of the evolving world struggle, we see how these kids from typical American towns--Sacramento, California; Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; and Waterbury, Connecticut--are influenced and changed by their experience of the war. This is a history told in terms of morals, emotion, suffering, sacrifice, justice, and injustice. The War reveals the heart and soul of a people at war.

This was a wise course to follow, for the television documentaries of the last six decades have amply detailed the geography, tactics, weapons, planes, ships, and tanks of the Second World War. The stories of the national leaders and generals of all the major combatants have been told and retold so often--virtually on a daily basis on cable TV for the last 25 years--that there is hardly anything new that a filmmaker can add. Until The War, no filmmaker had captured the interior experiences of the conflict.

Film and still photos, however explicit, can only hint at what it was like to see, feel, and smell the battlefield or the newly liberated death camp. Using a narrative drawn in broad strokes, and images and voices of men and women who lived and served during the war, The War re-creates the experience at the front and on the home front. Through a deft mix of stills and archival film, much of which will be unfamiliar to many viewers, Burns and Novick allow us to glimpse the richness, the fear, and the horror of the American experience in this most necessary and unavoidable war. Detailed exposition of battles and campaigns is mostly omitted, except where it underscores the experience of war. …

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