Directed by: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Premise: A seven-part documentary series about American involvement World War II. The series follows journeys of four soldiers through the various theaters and fronts of the war while also delving into the experiences of other men in the field and the lives of American families on the home front. The film also tracks the progression of the war on a macro level, detailing the campaigns in Europe and Pacific step by step.
What Works: The War is perhaps one of the greatest documents on World War II ever produced. The film is able to capture the struggle at nearly all levels. It smartly sets up each of the major conflicts of the Allied reclamation of Europe and the Pacific by summarizing the goals set by the military administration and then telling the stories of these battles through the testimonies of the people directly involved, using footage of the battlefront over the commentary. The footage assembled in the film is extraordinary. Rather than using the footage often seen in the library-worth of World War II documentaries previously produced, The War presents a lot of rarely seen footage, including some extremely graphic depictions of carnage. The narration of The War, written by Geoffrey C. Ward and read by Keith David, is perfect, combining expository information with a knack for dramatic oratory storytelling. It makes sense of the footage presented to the viewer while also constructing a narrative that interweaves the micro and macro-level stories, from the major political maneuvers to the personal agony of the soldiers going through hell. The film is also able to dramatize life on the home front as well, and connect it with what is happening on the battlefield. This works to make the explorations of the home front and the changes to American society that would take off after the war. This includes race and gender relations, which the film takes time to address in its complexity and occasional hypocrisy. This content makes The War not just about sacrifice and military conquest, but also about how World War II changed American culture, laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. The War also separates itself from other World War II documentaries by defying two assumptions of other works like it: The War does not assume that the triumph of Allied forces was inherent, nor does it assume that the Allied forces were without fault. On the contrary, the film addresses how close the Allies came to losing the war by allowing the footage and statistics of the casualties to pile up battle by battle. The film is also able to address the act of killing and what being in a war does to the soldiers and to the culture as a whole. While the film is not suggesting moral equivocation between the Allied and Axis forces, it does delve into some very slippery moral ground and in that way is unlike other documentaries on the Second World War.
What Doesn’t: The only thing missing from the film, except in some of the file footage, are members of the military and political leadership. Nearly all of the commentators were rank and file soldiers in the war. While this fits in with the documentary’s style, it does seem an odd omission. Also, the film is centered on the American experience. While that gives the documentary its focus, it also excludes a lot of important material, such as the experiences of soldiers of Axis powers or other Allied nations.
DVD extras: Commentary track.
Bottom Line: The War is an extraordinary film. It is worth viewing for anyone with an interest in World War II and comes recommended for those who enjoyed the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds.
Episode: #166 (November 11, 2007)