Tuned In

Ken Burns, the Interview: Episode 1–Why "The War"?

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I spoke with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for a good hour and a half, getting far more stuff than I could work into a 660-word column in Time. Burns, in addition to being thoughtful about the process and pitfalls of documentary making, is a saltier speaker than you might expect from a PBS type, as well as quite the unembarrassed salesman. (Among the passages I’m leaving out are various stories of other people telling Burns how much they loved his film.) There’s a lot of material, so I’m breaking it up–Ken Burns-style–into several episodes. I couldn’t get Wynton Marsalis to do a soundtrack for me, though. Herewith, episode one:

You called your Civil War documentary The Civil War. Why call this one simply The War? Was it a conscious decision?

Ken Burns: Very much so. That is what the people who lived through it called it. If you say “the war” in casual conversation, you mean the Iraqi war, the one that’s happening right now. But if you remove yourself from a contemporary journalistic circumstance, that what even people who weren’t involved in it called it. It was kind of a nod to the intimate bottom-up approach that we took to call it what everyone who lived through it called it.

A bottom-up approach meaning a people’s history?

KB: I wouldn’t say a people’s history, because then that enters into the connotations of [historian Howard] Zinn, not that I have anything against what he’s done. But “bottom up” means that there are no ‘experts’ in the film, that this is about about so-called “ordinary people,” the privates that did the fighting and the dying, that they are from four towns that are more or less randomly chosen, so that they provide an almost lottery-like collection of experiences that in their totality, interwoven and set against the context of the Second World War, represent a kind of unmediated history. … We said early on that if you weren’t in this war or waiting anxiously for someone that you love to come back from that war, you’re not in our film.

Lynn Novick: We wanted to give you enough of a sense of what decisions were made by important people that determined the fates of of the people that have no choice but to be involved and follow their orders. But we weren’t going to be agonizing with Eisenhower over whether he should launch D-Day on June 5 or June 6. We stripped away from our original script a lot of those stories.

KB: Top-down storytelling always becomes susceptible to that kind of hagiography. Even in The Civil War, Lincoln becomes bigger than he was. Here Eisenhower passes through the film, as does Patton, as does MacArthur, as do a lot of people, but really it’s the experiences of these folks that drive the action of any particular scene. … There’s no Rosie the Riveter; there’s real people doing things. It’s not that kind of iconic bullsh_t that gets trotted out every time you do the Second World War.