Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Studio: Paramount Home Video/PBS
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Running Time: 840 mins
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Release Date: October 2, 2007
Review Date: September 16, 2007
When “The War” arrived on my doorstep, I needed to check to see that this was actually what I thought it was. Indeed the much-touted and eagerly-anticipated Ken Burns documentary--six-years in the making--has arrived. Premiering on PBS in late September, a DVD release is being timed to coincide with the airing. Focusing largely on the impacts the Second World War had upon the American people, both at home and in the trenches abroad. Focusing on four disparate yet microcosmic communities from the four corners of the nation, “The War” is a very personal look at a series of events that can only be described as extraordinary.
Filmed in classic Ken Burns style—retrospective interviews, reading period documents, and photographs and home movies—“The War” is everything you expect. The History Channel and dozens of independent documentaries have discussed the strategic and political aspects of the war; while this series does address these issues, it seems more interested in understanding how the conflict impacted the people of the nation. Opening with the story of a man who enlisted in a peacetime army and taking a post in the Far East, Burns makes obvious early that this is not going to be a traditionally nationalistic film. Asking tough questions and treating the soldiers as ordinary people in an extraordinary situation—not blindly labeling them as heroes.
It is important to recognize that this is not an easy documentary. War is not idealized: It is presented in all its horror. You will see killing, atrocities, and images that will sick with you. While I took issue with a housewife from middle America opining on the nature of the nation’s perspective on Hitler, she having no pedigree to speak for the country, the frank recollections of soldiers who learned to kill gave me chills. War films, for all their work at presenting a realized scene of violence, cannot gather a sense of the true horror of combat. Cutting out the exciting melodrama by showing the reality of warfare is a fascinating tactic, and Burns balances it nicely to create a perfect picture of the World War II era.
While the series is comprehensive—to the point of exhaustion—it still feels somehow incomplete. Of course it is almost impossible to compress all the events that lead up to World War II and still do justice to the source, I wanted a more political understanding of the motivations of the foes America and her allies faced. Japanese motivation is given more expansion than usual, however this is still a largely European-Theater focused feature. That having been said, this documentary treats the conflict evenly, never advancing as though victory were assured for the Americans. Every setback is chronicled, every failure recorded for all time.
As difficult as it is to watch “The War,” I wholeheartedly believe it is necessary. As the series begins, it observes that history must be remembered so that we may not forget the lessons we have learned. I have long anticipated “The War.” I was not disappointed. Simultaneously emotionally wrenching and intellectually challenging, Ken Burns has created yet another masterpiece that illuminates America’s past in a way that should bring us both pride and shame, helping us move forward as a culture.
Culled from a high definition master, I was let down by the video quality on this 1.78:1 Anamorphic DVD set. While the period pictures look appropriately aged, contemporary interviews are almost blurry, with copious compression and artifacting marring the print. The best I can offer is that this track is inconsistent: old images look amazing while new images seem neglected.
There are a couple of different audio options available for your aural pleasure, including a full 5.1 Dolby Digital track, along with a more standard 2.0 track. Keith David’s dulcet growl comes through clean, as do the variety of celebrity readers who accompany his narration. Similarly jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis and Nora Jones, who are involved in the creation of the score, are featured nicely. Never overly manipulative or overpowering, the music is mixed to enhance the images but not distract or distance the viewer from their emotional impact.
As expansive as this documentary is, the leftover material is just as comprehensive. As a result the filmmakers are able to put together a variety of special features that expand upon the creation of the documentary, its impetus, and the revelations of the veterans. As such, featurettes such as “Making The War” takes the time to reflect on the theories behind the construction. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick talk about the stories they include. Resultantly the pair delve into tales found in later episodes, which may dissuade viewers from watching the extra features until the full documentary journey is complete.
Similarly the commentaries allow the filmmakers the chance to talk about their craft, the discovery of the stories that are included, and their editorial decisions. Eloquent and engaging, Burns elaborates on the poetic imagery used to expose the cost of war.
In one of the extra features the filmmakers reference the volumes of information they had to draw from, including still photographs. Many are included throughout this set in photo galleries, complete with captions identifying their origin. Text biographies are included that illuminate and expand upon the participants in the documentary, including their military record and subsequent lives. Additionally, the sixth and final disc includes additional interviews and archival footage which only adds to the epic scale of this already substantial documentary.
This project is intended to begin a conversation about both the nature of war and this particular historical example. As a result, there are a large amount of resources included on this disc and on the PBS website to help achieve that end.
Ken Burns has hit another homerun. Quibbles aside, “The War” is a fantastic documentary series that is not to be missed. Whether you watch it on PBS or buy this extravagant DVD set, I can promise you will be pleased with this use of your time. 17 hours may seem overwhelming, but the result is a true understanding of the nature of the war that shaped the modern world. Without hesitation, RECOMMENDED.