“Ken Burns’ The War” (2007)
Created by: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Featuring: Adam Arkin, Tom Hanks, Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas, Bobby Cannavale and Eli Wallach
Ken Burns: “I think that the overwhelming deciding factor to create THE WAR was the knowledge that we were losing 1,000 veterans each day in the United States — this is a loss of tangible memory that I just couldn’t countenance as a historical filmmaker. I also fear that we as a nation are losing our historical compass. Many Americans are not demonstrating a grasp of the nation’s history and that was a motivating factor as well.”
If you don’t know who Ken Burns is then you are missing out on an entire genre of television documentaries that are all almost second to none. The sheer amount and breadth of these documentaries is immense, using some of the most ground breaking techniques as well as being exhaustively researched they are all extremely entertaining. It used to be that Burns (with partner Lynn Novick) used to produce the very best long form documentaries around, but with the advent of reality television, binge watching, crime shows and many other innovations, as well as new formats, Burns style has suffered from comparison to these. The other factor which has increasingly become apparent is that they also border on being too nostalgic. What is interesting is that this series, “The War”, only borders on the nostalgic but never crosses the line, which in itself is a relief as it makes a difference from Burns other work.
In “The War” Burns creates a picture of a time when the world was simpler, as well as portraying this world on an extremely personal level. This illustrates how ‘normal’ families were treating the War as well the what to befall not only them but there hometowns.
The film focuses on World War II in a “bottom up” fashion through the lenses of four “quintessentially American towns” – Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California and Waterbury, Connecticut
The documentary does scream of jingoism, as well as flag waving, offering an experience that only the Americans could love. Even though this is ten years old and was produced during the Bush administration, you may be forgiven for thinking this was created this year during the Trump Presidency. It is quite a shame that the image that is produced by this series is that of the savior, something I think the US really lives off as they currently steer the world toward a precipice against any number of ‘enemies’.
“The War” doesn’t care about allies or enemies, there are no cutaways to anyone else’s wartime experience, but that is not a fault, it is by design. In its over 14 hour running time there are many stories as well as described experiences, there is a reliance on the personal as opposed to the rigid history lesson one might expect, but that once again is Burns style. Its not, however, style over substance, but there is a lot of emotion that sometimes does not have any concrete conclusion. Which, from a metaphorical view is fine as when the war ended it was not over for many people, in fact families faced lifetimes of grief as well as loss from the period the US were involved in the conflict.
What was really enjoyable about this series was that is not something you might find on the ‘History Channel’ or in a formal documentary series. This show is all about the people on the ground, something an observer like Mike Moore might do for current times. What Burns does is to have first hand interviews with people that were at the places of action or more socially conscious historians with a smattering of other observers thrown in to make the entire endeavor feel emotive. What this does is to make the entire subject stay with the viewer for some time as well as having a much larger impact. You can imagine your family going through something like what these subjects have gone through and pose questions about your own morality, strength as well as what it means to defend others rights.
That’s why when viewing this re-release of “The War” I cannot help think about how times have changed as well as how they haven’t. At the time of World War II the US was almost isolationist not wanting to involve itself in what was happening outside its borders. After the war however the US became a big player on the international stage involving itself in numerous wars with smaller countries, losing every time and making the world a much worse of place. They then decided to influence governments making messes along the way, leading us to situation we find ourselves in now. I think many people could learn a thing or two as well as get in touch with their humanity by watching even half of this series.
This as well as many other Ken Burns series should be a part of any household. It is true that they are American centric but there are many universal truths about what Burns is trying to say as well as promote. Go and get this now!