Ordinarily, I probably wouldn't write about a PBS series on Cinematical, but Ken Burns' The War deserves an exception. The lengthy documentary, which has seven episodes, first caught my attention at Telluride last year, where one of the episodes was shown as a sneak peek. I knew who Burns was, of course -- his previous documentary series -- The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz -- are noted for their exceptional quality. But still, The War being added to the Telluride schedule seemed to catch folks by surprise.

And then, on the gondola and in line, I started hearing buzz about The War. When I asked people what they'd seen that they liked at the fest, The War was mentioned over and over (usually preceded by, "Well, it's long, but ..."). So when I heard that the DVD set of The War was coming out, I knew I wanted to write it up.

Even if you're not familiar with Ken Burns' work, or you think you're not into war movies, this documentary is so extraordinarily well done that you're bound to find value in it. It is long. Very long. As in, it takes about 14 1/2 hours to get through all seven episodes, and by the time you're done, you're likely to feel like you've been through a war yourself. Burns notes on the 36-minute "Making of" featurette that the production team filmed hundreds of hours of interviews, looked at hundreds of photos, and culled through thousands of hours of archival foootage in pulling together this remarkable project. It's hard to imagine a more comprehensive view of one of the most cataclysmic events ever to impact the world. In telling the story of World War II, Burns and co-director and producer Lynn Novick decided to take the approach of telling the tale of the war as it impacted four American towns: Luverne, Minnesota; Westbury, Connecticut, Mobile, Alabama and Sacramento, California. In determining which towns to use, Burns and Novick first hunted down interesting war stories from veterans, and then went backwards from there to the towns to find the places with the most interesting stories. The stories are told through personal letters, interviews, family photographs, and archival video. They shot on film, and often, as they had to pause an interview to change out a reel, someone's family member would comment that they'd never heard their loved one tell that story before, or that they'd heard it many times, but never in quite that way.

The World War II-era newspaper columns of Al Macinstosh, editor of the Rock County Star in Minnesota -- and read by Tom Hanks -- bring to life the impact of a war thousands of miles away on the people here on the homefront, as do the personal stories of people like Katharine Phillips from Mobile, Alabama, talking about how when she and her girlfriends at college heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they knew immediately that life as they knew it was over, that their brothers and boyfriends would be called to fight. Asako Tokuno, another homefront witness, tears up all these years later as she talks about how after Pearl Harbor, she became aware of her ethnicity for the first time in her life, from the hostile stares and reactions she got on the bus and walking down the street.

All the archival footage the production team got from the National Archives to use in the film was silent -- some great action shots, ground battles, air battles, but none of it had sound -- so the sound crew had to go in and add the sounds of WWII planes, the sounds of bombs dropping, of brick walls being shattered by explosions. Further enhancing the documentary is the music by Wynford Marsalis, who worked with Burns to compose distinct music for each of the four towns, that would still feel like part of a cohesive whole.

The boxed set is beautifully packaged in a nice, book-style foldout case. The first, third and sixth DVDs have special features -- the aforementioned "Making of" featurette, commentary from Burns and Novick, a photo gallery, deleted scenes, extra interviews -- you could practically teach an entire WWII history class using this DVD set as a starting point. This is a documentary about war, and war is not pretty. It's ugly and violent, and pretty graphic, even though the archival footage is in black-and-white. There's a disclaimer on there that it's "not for children," but I think that depends on the child. I'd let my 10-year-old watch this for the historical value; teens and young adults would benefit from watching this series and then discussing WWII in relation to the current war in the Middle East.

In The War, there are many personal stories about the homefront -- how distant that war, half a globe away, seemed to the people going about their daily lives here, as the country recovered economically from the Great Depression. Until Pearl Harbor, all those news reels of war in Europe seemed like something that had no relevance in their own lives. December 7, 1941, suddenly made the war relevant in a very real way, carrying sons and brothers and boyfriends to where the fighting was, and uniting the country in a way that's never been seen since.

In one of the later books in Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, Anne Blythe tells one of her sons that war is something that only happened long ago, that men have since learned how to resolve their conflicts without fighting. By the last book in the series, Rilla of Ingleside, Anne is seeing her sons leave Prince Edward Island to fight in WWI. The world recovered from that war, and at the time, it seemed we'd never have another war like that. Just a couple decades later, though, the world was immersed in WWII, and at the end of that war millions more lives were lost. We've had other wars in between WWII and the current war, of course, but with the war in Iraq, and the threat of war in Iran, we obviously have not, as Montgomery hoped nearly a century ago, yet learned to resolve our differences without killing each. The timing of the release of Ken Burns' documentary, as I field my inquisitive daughter's questions about both the Holocaust and Iraq, seems both timely and relevant.

When Ken Burns talks about young men seeing their best friend blown up next to them, or shooting another human being at close range and having their blood splatter all over them, when a fighter pilot talks about aiming his guns at targets and feeling sick knowing he was killing people, but that he had to do his job, he could just as well be talking to soldiers engaged in the war in Iraq today. Perhaps that's the biggest history lesson of all -- the way we continue to repeat the horrors of history, over and over again. By keeping that history alive through films like The War, Ken Burns has made filmmaking a form of preserving history, and that he does so with an attention to detail and passion for his subject matter that makes the DVD set of The War a must-have addition to your home video library.
categories Features, Dvds, Cinematical