By Gianmaria Franchini
There is something both incredibly expansive and ultimately intimate about Ken Burns new documentary, The War. As if the subject matter isn’t of epic proportions enough, the seven episode, 15 hour affair will leave viewers with a relatively minor case of shell-shock. But as the film’s narrative weaves intricately from the Pacific theater to American hometowns and back across the Atlantic to the Western Front, a moving, muddled, and profound re-telling of WWII emerges.
The archival war-footage used, carefully sifted from a massive public collection, is enough to garner attention and praise from WWII aficionados, and Burns’ addition of authentic sound effects is done on a grand scale with meticulos attention to detail. Simply listening to the constant ambient barrage of whizzing bullets and roaring artillery gives one a pretty good, if distilled idea of what war sounds like.
In terms of documentary film-making, the amount of information included in “The War” is stunning.
But the heart of the film lies in the storytelling. World War II buffs raised on stock History Channel documentaries might be disappointed with the series’ insistence on evading displays of military might and strategy, but the payoff is a finished product that resonates on a very different level. “The War” is not about squabbling generals, big guns, and the impersonal logistics of war â€“ it’s scope, filtered through Burns’ unobtrusive lens, leads straight to veterans, their families, and what they saw, heard, and felt.
The main narrative’s trajectory, enhanced by several secondary sources (none more memorable than reports from Al McIntosh’s Rock County Star Herald read by Tom Hanks’ familiar clean-shaven drawl) follows U.S involvement in the war, and is interrupted by first-hand accounts from men and women from four U.S towns: Waterbury Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento California; and Luverne Minnesota. So while there isn’t any shortage of brutal imagery, the body of the narrative is told from the ground-up, and from a uniquely American perspective. Katharine Phillips bittersweet accounts of waiting for the “boys” to come home, and Quentin Aanenson’s lucid retelling of his traumatic bomber missions are especially captivating.
After hours of trudging through six episodes mired in violence, stumbling over evidence of Nazi barbarism along with Americans Burnett Miller and Dwain Luce is surprising, and that much more gut-wrenching. More fascinating, though, is the perspective we are given to the creation of a world-wide traumatic memory. Burns’ decision to tell the story from the ground up, giving exposure to an expansive personal archive, also gives witness to the return of memories that are very painful, and very distant.
“The War” re-visits and gives new life to an old, death-trodden story once beaten and examined past the point of relevance. Burns uses nothing extraordinary to accomplish this – he found the right storytellers, gave them a voice, and lent the project seven-years hard work. There could be parallels or lessons drawn here about a certain current war, but “The War” stands well enough, and bare enough before you, on its own.
“The War” will be re-aired weekly on Wednesdays at 8 pm10/3 -11/14 on KTEH.