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10.22.2007

dvd review: ken burns' the war


I recently set aside some time to watch Ken Burns' made-for-PBS documentary series The War. It's an amazing, powerful piece of work, from the producing team responsible for the celebrated documentaries The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. It's an epic, sweeping exploration of American involvement the Second World War, told from the perspectives of the ordinary men and women—both abroad and at home—whose lives were caught up in "one of the greatest cataclysms in human history." The War. These are not stories of the politicians and generals making decisions at the top, but stories from "the bottom up." The film focuses on the stories of citizens from four geographically distributed American towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota. These communities could represent any town in the U.S. during the war, relaying personal portraits of ordinary people in the trenches, on the lines and on the homefront.

But let's get to why I'm talking about this here. What I really love about this series is its notable inclusion of the Japanese American experience during World War II—not presented as a footnote, or a special side nod, but as an essential, integral part of the American experience during World War II. The "making of" documentary reveals that Ken Burns and Co. agreed early on that the story of the War flat-out couldn't be told without talking about the internment experience, or the lesser-known 110th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. We hear the stories of regular folks who lived through the shame and injustice of the internment, and those who fought through some of Europe's most devasting battles on behalf of the United States (including the 442nd's rescue of "The Lost Battalion"). The film doesn't try to glorify the war or make heroes or martyrs out of these people... it just wants you to know that these ordinary men and women lived through it, and their stories shouldn't be forgotten. The result is a vivid, harrowing, sometimes heartbreaking journey through the war.

With the fall TV season in full swing, between the new shows and returning favorites, the thought of watching a 15-hour, seven-part documentary about World War II probably doesn't fit into most people's schedules... but I would urge everyone to make time and seek out The War (it's still playing on several PBS stations). Originally presented in seven episodes over several nights on PBS, the series is much more digestible on DVD, where you can watch at your own pace, as well as view some really insightful special features. It's taken me a long time to get through it (I got the DVD nearly a month ago), but it's been well worth it. I highly recommend checking out The War.