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Dead Tree Alert II: Ken Burns Goes Back to War

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Carrying wounded in Okinawa. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

In my column this week, I sat down with Ken Burns and his co-director/producer, Lynn Novick, and talked about–well, a lot of things, but the focus of this column ended up being on their WWII documentary The War and its parallels to, and implied comments on, the war today:

Burns’ 1990 The Civil War first aired in wartime too, just after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Today the most powerful statement of The War is its simple, brutal willingness to show what war looks like. Without wallowing in gore, Burns and Novick combed through archive and newsreel footage to depict the war as GIs saw it: battlefield corpses, bomb-blasted civilians and waves lapping against bodies on beaches. Compare this with the Iraq conflict, during which the U.S. government has suppressed images of coffins, let alone casualties, often with the cooperation of the media.

The contrast is starker when The War presents a newsreel from the battle of Tarawa–issued on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders–that shows ghastly images of Marine dead. “This,” the newsreel narrator intones, “is the price we had to pay for a war we didn’t want.” Today the government is loath to lay out a price, or ask one. “People yearn for the memory of shared sacrifice that the Second World War represents,” Burns says. “Now we’re all free agents. We don’t give up nothin’. We were asked after 9/11 to go shopping. It was sort of ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.’”

As for the lot-of-other-things we talked about, I’ll post some excerpts from our conversation later on today.

And the docu-series itself? I usually hate great-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing reviews, but, well, it’s great if you like that sort of thing. To be honest, I doubt I would have watched all 15 hours if not for professional obligation. It’s vast, it repeats itself, it lags at times. Like most Burns documentaries, it’s sometimes guilty of “overclosing” (I think I owe Matt Zoller Seitz for that term)–that is, adding an extra topcoat of sentiment, musical cues, what have you, where the subjects’ words alone would be more powerful.

But it’s also tremendously moving. The War–which interviews some 40 veterans and contemporaries from four American cities and towns–is not going to teach you anything new, factually, about this vastly chronicled war, at least not anything you could easily find elsewhere. It would be foolish to try, and that’s not The War’s point. The War is about one simple idea: explaining what it feels like to fight in a war, live through it and lose the people you love in it.

Emphasis on feels. The War is about emotional education, and while it may seem like an easy lay-up to tell people that war is awful and sad, it’s tough to make an audience–that’s seen Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, the History Channel, World at War and so on–actually feel it again on a gut level. Burns and Novick do it, or rather their subjects do, by dredging up memories and letting the emotions play on their faces and in their words as if they were living it again.

For all his sentimentalist tendencies, Burns has made a generally hard-nosed film, with ugly archival scenes of combat gore as well as footage of soldiers captured in quieter, lonely moments–trudging down a road, reconnoitering a staircase–that depict the brutality and banality of war. And while he clearly respects his subjects, he doesn’t romanticize them; he gets them to recollect and confront not just the horrible things that were done to them but the horrible things that they and their comrades did, stories they retell unapologetically, regretfully or philosophically.

It’s amazing to think that people could look at a 15-hour documentary and criticize it, of all things, for leaving too much out, but they have and will. In today’s New York Times, Alessandra Stanley criticizes Burns for focusing entirely on the U.S. experience, and she has a point as far as that goes. Hispanics criticized the original version of The War for omitting Latino soldiers, and they had a point too. (I’ll post an excerpt from Burns about the controversy later.) The two interviews he added with Hispanic soldiers, and one with a Native American, seem tacked on, but they do improve the scope of The War, which like most Burns documentaries is attuned to racial ironies. (In one scene, a Japanese American soldier recalls getting on a bus in the South and not knowing if he should ride in the “white” or “colored” section of the bus; he guesses “colored,” and the driver corrects him.)

When it comes down to it, though, Burns wants to teach your heart, not your head. And whether you manage to watch all seven installments of The War or just one, the message will get through.

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