September 23, 2007

Review of The War

Despite blemishes, Burns' 'The War' is a strong, searing sagaKen Burns' “The War” is a triumph, but not an unconditional one. Despite its title, this stunning seven-part film cannot be considered the definitive documentary on World War II. In this country, in this era, perhaps no single work can make us fully comprehend the enormity of what happened 60-plus years ago.

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.
The Native segment:The irony of the United States battling fascism abroad while upholding racial injustice at home is a major theme in “The War.” Burns, then, must have been surprised when, as his film was being edited, Hispanics complained that their contributions had been ignored. He responded by interviewing two Mexican-Americans from Los Angeles, Bill Lansford and Pete Arias, and one American Indian, Joseph Medicine Crow from the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.

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.)
The main flaw:Burns did, however, have a choice in how he told this story. Often, “The War” is a prisoner of its format. The film occasionally roams beyond its four towns to provide historical context, but these are arbitrary and unsatisfactory outings. The Holocaust, for instance, is only hinted at until the final episode, when soldiers from Mobile and Waterbury encounter the Final Solution's survivors while liberating Nazi concentration camps.

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.

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