The film, which premieres tonight at 8, was six years in the making. Despite controversies over Burns' initial failure to include tales from Hispanic veterans and a kerfluffle over four spoken obscenities, each episode shines. The viewer's 14 1/2 hour investment is amply repaid by the vivid testimony of dozens of survivors, and a few casualties. They speak in language that is bitter, wry, honest.
Their memories advance a key Burnsian theme, how the war touched every corner of our country. Rather than being edited into the main body of “The War,” however, these tales were tacked on as codas following three of the seven episodes. (Lansford and Arias discuss Guadalcanal after Episode 2, and Iwo Jima after Episode 6. After Episode 5, Medicine Crow spins a marvelous yarn of how, in a German village, he performed the four feats required of his tribe's war chiefs.)
While spanning the globe, this film ignores much of the world. “The War” is at its worst when cursorily explaining, or simply ignoring, the conflict's causes and results, except as they relate to Burns' four towns. ... [Y]ou have to wonder about a World War II documentary that has time to rhapsodize about springtime in rural Minnesota but can't spare a moment for the Warsaw ghetto, Shanghai, the battleship Bismarck or “righteous Gentile” Raoul Wallenberg.