Great wars ignite great words. In the crucible of killing and chaos are men and women who see things clearly and truly, who report an abiding sense of how it is.
For the next two Wednesdays, PBS broadcasts "Reporting America at War." This is television that matters, that should be seen, as filmmaker Stephen Ives has set down a visual document of power and clarity.
Using archival footage and contemporary interviews, "Reporting" attests to those who bear witness to death and dying yet come to know the large hearts of heroes. The war correspondent is audience and activist -- a spectator who suddenly can find him or herself on the front line with death.
Although this documentary sometimes creates the impression of de facto deification occasionally occurring with wartime reporters, it also speaks of the sins of government collaboration, of toeing party lines and of complicity with bureaucratic censors.
Ives works with a first-rate team. Writer Michelle Ferrari -- who recently earned an Emmy for scripting the PBS documentary "Seabiscuit," a film she also made with Ives -- uses graceful yet muscular language to convey complicated and sometimes contrary ideas.
As edited by George O'Donnell, "Reporting" advances with purpose. The progression of grand historic footage intercut with images of tender intimacy makes for a visceral as well as a contextual understanding of the cross-cutting allegiances and colliding experiences covering war entails.
Linda Hunt provides a nuanced narration, evoking on several levels the hope and despair integral to this story, while composer Joel Goodman's restrained score underscores the emotions fueling war.
Tonight's installment, "The Romance of War," begins with the Spanish American War, an event in great measure fanned by William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism and covered by illustrious American writers such as Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis.
Davis, who became the most famous American war correspondent of his day because of his dispatches describing this conflict, turned a U.S. Army colonel named Theodore Roosevelt into a national celebrity by theatrically recounting his charge on San Juan Hill.
In looking at World War I, Ives evokes the coming of a sinister new age. Unending lines of solders march to the future, a mechanized juggernaut of brute power and force. At this time, too, government restrictions come into play, the "managing" of reporters beginning in earnest. Consequently, as Hunt's commentary notes, "the real horror of the Western front went largely unreported."
"Reporting America at War" investigates World War II by focusing on reporters who often set aside personal safety to get the story.
Martha Gellhorn, a gutsy young woman in her 20s -- a journalist of "stern, austere writing," as one friend describes her -- eschewed sentimentality and platitudes to deliver the very thing. Though now generally remembered as one of Ernest Hemingway's many wives, Gellhorn put herself in harm's way many times while marshaling the facts and the feelings.
Other outstanding World War II journalists addressed in "The Romance of War" include Edward R. Murrow, whose on-the-spot broadcasts from London during the blitz riveted Americans and brought home Britain's grim circumstance. Also profiled is news photographer Robert Capa, whose pictures captured the war's horror and heroics.
Yet the World War II reporter who best knew the soldier was a slight fellow named Ernie Pyle. Long before the now stage-managed notion of an "embedded" correspondent became a staple of war coverage, Pyle lived with the recruits. He felt it was his duty to make civilians in America know the soldier's story, to make palpable the myriad details and dangers of enlisted life. Pyle was to die a casualty of war, cut down by enemy fire while accompanying an infantry advance team on the Japanese island of Ie Shima in April 1945. Just a month before, Pyle prophetically had told Robert E. Sherwood, an emissary to the Pacific from Franklin D. Roosevelt, "I'm not coming back from this one."
The concluding installment Nov. 12, "Which Side Are You On?," examines the changing nature of war reportage, particularly the shift from seeing the calling as a dashing escapade, intrinsically righteous, to something far different in terms of widening government intervention. In concert with this, Part 2 looks at television and the pundits spawned by cable and its relentless churning of "news."
In particular, the impact of the Cold War is examined, where battles are increasingly waged for ideology rather than sovereignty. Though the documentary stints on the Korean War, Vietnam is exactingly examined. Reporters recalling this quagmire include Morley Safer, Walter Cronkite, Peter Arnett and David Halberstam.
The documentary goes on to assess the reporter's role in the Persian Gulf War -- the first "video war," as one commentator calls it -- delving into the newsman's status as proxy for the rest of us. Finally, "Reporting" addresses the Iraq invasion earlier this year. And in weighing the vast visual barrage spawned by this military action, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour says, "Yes, you got good pictures ... but you don't necessarily get great journalism."
At its best moments, and there are many, "Reporting America at War" goes beyond the facts, capturing a bit of poetry's shine.
'Reporting America at War'
When: Tonight, 9-10:30;
and Nov. 12
Rating: The network has rated the documentary TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).
Producers Amanda Pollak, Stephen Ives. Director Ives. Writer Michelle Ferrari. Narrator Linda Hunt.