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The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

The War: A Ken Burns Film

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The War: A Ken Burns Film
2006 (2007) - Florentine Films/WETA Washington (PBS/Paramount)

Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/B

I have to admit, I have an almost endless fascinating for the history of the Second World War. This is a time in our no-so-distant history when the entire world was embroiled in conflict, and when almost everyone was required to make tremendous sacrifices. What's surprising to me is that while the war has grown impossibly large in our collective consciousness, the entire conflict - at least the formal American involvement in it - lasted a scant four years, from 1941 to 1945. There's almost a romanticism at play when we think of this period. There's also a quickness to embrace the righteousness of the endeavor, that we as Americans have seemed to require of every conflict we've been involved in since. Why is this, I wonder, and what does it mean for current conflicts and for the future?

When I first learned that acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns had decided to focus his energies on capturing the American experience of the conflict on film, it was impossible for me not to feel excitement at the news. Burns has a way of humanizing historical events - something that's critical to fully appreciating and understanding them - in a way that all too many historical works fail to achieve. So what stories would he find to tell this time around? What lessons could be learned?

The great anticipation of Burns' work on this series has been both positive and negative. To be fair, there's been some controversy about it. Upon seeing early episode screenings, Latino groups protested that The War failed to adequately depict their involvement in the conflict. It's certainly a fair criticism, to which Burns and his producer responded by assembling about 30 minutes of additional narrative in all, added to the end of three of the episodes (1, 5 and 6 to be specific). There have also been other complaints from various quarters that The War neglects this particular aspect of the conflict or that particular battle. The Latino issue aside, however, I think most of these criticisms miss the point.

The important thing to keep in mind is that Burns and company didn't set out to create an ultimate, all-encompassing document of the entire conflict. What they've done instead is to attempt to capture a sense of what the personal experience of the war was like for those who lived through it, from the American perspective, both on the front lines and back at home. They've picked four towns, one in the Northeast, one in the South, one in the upper Midwest and one on the West Coast, and the events of the war are seen from the perspectives of the sons and daughters of those communities who went to war, and the families they left behind. There are no historians interviewed. None of the usual experts discuss the generals or the strategies or the weaponry. This is simply a glimpse at the human experience of the war by the people who actually fought it. You're shown interviews with survivors, and then vintage film footage and photographs illustrate their stories. As such, it's powerful and highly personal. Given both the length and subject matter, it can be a grueling ordeal to sit through all 15 hours. You're going to see some tough imagery, as the film doesn't pull any punches. But it's worth the experience. The War sticks with you long after you're done viewing... just as it should.

For the record, each episode on this six-disc set runs a little over two hours, and there are seven episodes (the series is about fifteen hours long in all). The DVD presents them in anamorphic widescreen video, with both Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 audio. The video quality is generally good, but you have to keep in mind that much of the vintage war footage has obvious age-related issues. It's grainy, scratchy and shaky - all the things you'd expect from footage shot under fire in battle. But I suspect there's substantial material here that's never been seen before, including color footage that makes the war seem much more immediate and recent. Better still, the 5.1 surround mix is as good as almost anything you'd find in a Hollywood film. Virtually all of the vintage footage was silent, so the sounds of battle have been meticulously recreated such that every time you hear machine gun fire, it's the sound of the actual weapon shown on screen. Accuracy was paramount, really giving you a sense of being in the thick of things. On top of this, Wynton Marsalis was recruited to assemble the music and to contribute a number of original pieces to the score. The result is alternately haunting and heart-warming, effectively mixing actual period music with a number of new themes and passages.

Extras on these DVDs include additional interview footage, several exclusive deleted scenes, a photo gallery, behind-the-scenes featurettes and other material. There's also audio commentary by Burns and producer Lynn Novick on a couple of episodes. It's not a lot of material, but what you do get is all well worth your time. I should also note that, as is the usual practice with Burns productions, a companion book and CD are also available separately.

For a conflict that was fought just sixty odd years ago, World War II today seems like something that happened only in old B&W Hollywood movies. Its experiences have become fleetingly remote with the passage of time, and most of its lessons are seemingly forgotten. Thankfully, as I'd hoped, The War helps to make these tumultuous events real again. It's surprising how much resonance the film has given today's geopolitical realities. As Burns notes in one of the featurettes on the making of the series, some 1,000 veterans of this conflict die every day... and there aren't many left. So this series can perhaps best be thought of as a sort of final testimony from a generation that's all but passed into the pages of history. The War debuts on PBS this coming Sunday (9/23), and the DVD streets on 10/2. I strongly encourage you not to miss it.

Bill Hunt
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