The realities of ‘War’

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Times Staff Writer

It is long enough to seem like the thing itself, and the renown of the filmmaker is such that it will be taken by many as definitive, the last pictorial word on the Second World War. But “The War” -- “A Ken Burns Film” produced and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that begins its 14-plus-hour run Sunday night on PBS -- is a movie, after all, and the fact that it is full of real people telling their own stories, and of photographs and newsreels taken of events that would have occurred whether or not there were cameras to record them, does not make it any less of a constructed work, a version, a take, an impression, an aesthetic experience.

It is, for all the care it takes to tell the truth, on some level a work of imagination -- “Ken Burns’ The War,” precisely.

However mediated -- the war did not unroll as a series of still photographs or bits of film footage cut together under narration and accompanied by a musical score, and certainly Norah Jones wasn’t around to sing about it, as she occasionally is here -- “The War” is undeniably some sort of treasure trove. Burns’ reputation and connections and resources, the fact that he in some way stands in the public mind for the PBS blockbuster documentary, means that he has been able to assemble a wealth of pictures that you will never under any circumstances see in any other place, ever. (And there is a lot of color footage, which feels like a revelation just by being in color.)


If you are at all interested in that time, or even suspect that it might be good to know something about a big thing that happened quite possibly before you were born -- true, after all, of everyone under the age of 62 -- you will want at least to take a look. (It’s made to be of a piece -- a very long piece -- but you can dip in and out easily.) For all its many flaws, it’s an honest, fitfully successful attempt to make history breathe and to tell an oft-told story in a new way. (Though not new to Burns, who tells all his stories in more or less the same way, adjusting, of course, for available material.)

That the two would meet -- Burns and World War II -- seems inevitable. He is a big-topic kind of guy, and World War II was the defining and almost chronologically central moment of the 20th century; in myriad ways (cultural, political, technological), we’re still living out its legacy. That there are still people alive to talk about it, and that they are rapidly going, would also wet his whistle and hasten his work.

That it is an impossible task, Burns -- or his constant screenwriter, Geoffrey C. Ward -- admits at the beginning of each episode: “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting.” His solution has been to present a partial view that might stand for the whole. It is strictly a story of the American war, told from the point of view of a not-quite-random sampling of people -- primarily citizens of Waterbury, Conn., Mobile, Ala., Luverne, Minn., and Sacramento -- who fought in it or waited at home for people who fought in it. The British, the Russians, the French (not to mention the Australians, the Greeks, and on and on) come into it only tangentially. Generals appear only in passing, politicians are out of it almost entirely and strategy is only discussed as necessary. This parochial view, in which the enemy is only seen from afar, or up close in a fight, has the added, surely unintended, undesirable effect of making them seem more insidious, more mystically and inexplicably and congenitally evil than we are used to now. (The Japanese are “the Japs” again.)

The decision to tell all by not telling it all is sensible enough, but the structure is also a straitjacket -- in a roundabout way it’s what led to protests by Latino American advocacy groups who felt their contributions had been scanted, and to the addition of three segments (one dealing with Native Americans, or rather one Native American) at the end of Episodes 1, 5 and 6. These passages are separated from the film proper by titles reading, “More than 16 million American men and women would serve in uniform during the war. They came from everywhere and each had a story to tell,” the “each” stressed as if to say, almost grudgingly, that these added stories are no more important than anyone’s.

Which is, after all, the point -- not to be inclusive but universal, to represent the experiences of many through the few. But war is not universal; it is horribly particular. As it was, Burns made sure to spend time on the Japanese American experience both in the American camps and European combat. And it may be that Burns is so used to seeing America’s race problem in terms of black and white -- the African American experience is a repeating theme in his work -- that by addressing the irony of segregation in the armed forces and defense plants, that he had everyone covered. Had he taken a stroll around Washington, D.C., he might have expected it: Every group wants its monument.

Burns’ style -- based on the strategy of slowly moving through a still photograph, what has come to be known as the Ken Burns Effect -- is essentially contemplative. There is a kind of elegiac pokiness endemic to his work, which is one reason why “Jazz” dragged fatally and why “Baseball” worked so well. What energy and immediacy his films exhibit tends to come from the real people in them, speaking for themselves or telling what they know -- Shelby Foote in “The Civil War,” Buck O’Neil in “Baseball.” Fighter pilot Quentin Aanenson is the (quiet but forceful) star here, though his is only one of a number of intelligent, reflective voices.


At the same time, these recollections come at a remove of 60 years, and the film on the whole has a quality of veiled distance. That may be all but unavoidable in any documentary; in the end, we may actually need Steven Spielberg in order to get a sense of something as wild and big as D-day. For all its abundance of images and of the great calamity they contain -- this is the documentary as necropolis -- “The War” can feel faraway and small, airless, endless.

But the pictures are there to see, and the voices to hear, and they are worth looking at and listening to, and thinking about.



“The War: A Necessary War (December 1941- December 1942)”

Where: KCET

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)