Since I'm more or less going to slag on Ken Burns for the duration of this series--and once more again, in summary, when the DVD set comes out--I suppose I should express a few thoughts on what I admire about The War...
First, let's face it: very few, if any, other documentary filmmakers could have gotten something of this scope made. Period. It's true, the Hanks-Spielberg team are making another $100M blockbuster miniseries for HBO, this time on the Pacific Campaign, but that's a feature film, not a documentary. For all the faults in Burns' project, it's bested only by the monumental BBC series, World at War.
Second, Burns has admirably avoided the temptation to sugar-coat or otherwise turn The War into an extended episode of Patriotic Gore. Whether quoting Ernie Pyle's remark, in North Africa, that getting our asses handed to us might help disabuse us of the notion that we could "whip our weight in wildcats" or in accompanying the voice-over narration of a letter home about ravioli with with stills of casualty after casualty, including women and children among the dead, Burns' storytelling skill often serves up unforgettable reminders that war is a horrible waste--and holds big surprises for anyone who takes it lightly.
Finally, whether it's reminding us of such great characters as Ernie Pyle or Bill Mauldin, giving prominence to Paul Fussell and Samuel Hynes, or finding first-rate, sometimes absolutely stunning footage (the night attack scene in North Africa is haunting & beautiful at once), Burns' eye and his taste and his research have preserved some invaluable treasures.
Now, for tonight's regularly-scheduled bitch.
One thing I've noticed is how consistently Burns side-steps the actual war. This is largely a function of his decision to base his tale on four communities, but I wonder... Because if there is one thing about World War Two that has resolutely not caught on with the American public (cf. Sen. Thompson's recent bullshit remark), it's that the U.S. was, outside the Pacific, a relatively minor player in winning the Second World War--and made the least sacrifice of almost any combatant nation. Of the ten largest battles in WWII, the U.S. only fought in two of them: Operation Overlord (Normandy) and The Battle of the Bulge. As a sacrifice of its nation's people, the U.S. gave to WWII some one-third of one percent. Poland lost almost 20-percent of its population. The Soviet Union 14-percent. Germany 10-percent. Canada lost a greater percentage of its boys and men than the United States. As Stalin put it, "The Americans brought the money, Britain the time, and the Russians the blood."
It's absolutely true that for every man war is different and terrifying in its own way, and that to any soldier of any nation, facing death--and suffering it--is the ultimate and unequaled sacrifice. But Burns' temptation to the local drama, the home movies shot in Alaska, the quaint Pix Theater in Luverne, MN, the old lady on her porch, the 4F workers having a smoke and a beer after their day sharing the line with Rosie the Riveter, all this obscures, crowds out, crucial truths about the Second World War.
And, frankly, most of his local scenes don't accomplish what he sets
out to do as well as some of the simpler moments he finds elsewhere.
When Earl Burke, of Sacramento, says of his early Army training at Fort
Lewis that he learned to "pick up cigarettes, paint anything that
didn't move, and salute anything that did," he not only captured an
aspect of military life that is still familiar to the kids in Iraq and
Afghanistan, he also sketches a wonderful, one-line portrait of Earl
Burke--one that stands in for so many of the brave and innocent kids
who signed up in train loads to go fight World War Two. When Burke is
later relating his part as a ball-turret gunner in the raid on Schweinfurt's ball-bearing factories--a raid in which his arm was shattered and which resulted in his living for 15 months with maggots eating the disease
from his body, but which counted him lucky, as a quarter of those who
went on that raid died in it--we remember the insouciant boy from
Sacramento, his quiet humor, his love for his brother (who died earlier
in the War)... in short: we didn't need pictures of snow-filled streets
or rows of small-town shops to tell us what America was like, we needed
Sadly, the current rate of character and surprise, of incident and its context, to that of flabby sentimentalism and convenient tropes, of pan-and-scan postcards and poorly-sketched voice-over is about 20- or 30-percent of the essential former to the grossly-wasted balance on the latter. The second two hours were better, however, than the first two-and-a-half hours... and we have 9 1/2 hours to go: so until tomorrow, I'll just say, "We'll see."