9/23/2007 - Ken Burns new documentary: The War


Apr 1, 2007
A review by John Sponauer.

Refighting "The War"
by John Sponauer

“I really can’t tell you what I saw,” would seem to be the antithesis of what Ken Burns’s new documentary The War is about; the veteran speaking those words, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn., struggles on film to find a description of the horror he witnessed as a young G.I. helping to liberate a Nazi medical experimentation facility. He finally gives up, staring into space, as Burns mercilessly shows some of what Leopold can’t describe: the sheer evil at the core of the most savage conflict of the 20th century.

The War is not for the weak of heart, stomach or mind.

For those fortunate enough to see some of Burns’s masterwork before its premiere on September 23 on PBS, the WWII of a thousand books and movies has come alive yet again, but rarely has it ever been so personal and intimate on film. From the brief preview shown in Waterbury (one of four cities chosen by Burns as a feature location in the documentary) on September 10, it seems likely that The War will resonate in public discourse for a long time.

Much of that will turn the work and the war into a parable of Iraq, and we will be poorer with each occurrence. Supporters and opponents of today’s war will naturally grab the film’s messages for their own purposes. Those critical of the president will cite the shared sacrifice shown in WWII but seemingly absent from today’s America. Those supporting the war—and for the record, I am one—will long for the era when it was not considered naïve to paint the world in stark colors. Both comparisons, and dozens more like them, fail for the same reason: we don’t live in the same times as those Burns has so skillfully captured on film, and in many ways, we’re not the same country, for good or ill.

In an era of self-published blogs, irresponsible mainstream media, and when even sports columns commonly reflect the trite political positions of their writers, letting loose a 14-hour epic about “a necessary war” like WWII into the public domain seems to be nothing but an invitation to view and discuss the conflict and the film through the prism of the present, or the other way around. Whether that’s a sign of the narcissism of our era, a natural reaction to the art, or something else entirely, it may actually diminish the sacrifices of the generation of Americans who fought in either war.

Instead, it would behoove the viewer to use the occasion instead to simply honor the generation that did what it did, and try to grasp the enormity of it all in the times it occurred. Judging by the brief segments shown during the Waterbury preview, Burns has made a remarkable film about a remarkable era, and that should be enough for his portion of the work that needs to be done.

Burns has said repeatedly that part of his motivation for making The War was to educate today’s youth, but one could argue his mission actually needs to be broader than that; depending on the generation, WWII seems to have been viewed in jingoist propaganda, dismissive elitism or historical ignorance, sometimes more than one at a time.

The truth is that WWII was, at times, as heroic, stoic, necessary, wasteful and evil as all of humanity, and, at times, of wars immortal, and Burns has done an excellent job of capturing the conflict in a raw, unsentimental manner that could just as easily be profiling American warriors of any other generation. What we do with our viewing experience after we turn the TV off is our responsibility, but it’s my belief that we owe both the veterans of WWII and Ken Burns a devotion not to turn their story into our own platform simply because it’s possible.

There are lessons in The War, for sure, and it’s hard not to be moved toward one’s political inclinations by watching it. But for the honor of those who fought it, let their amazing story tell itself, even for those who—after all these years—haven’t been able to find the words to accurately do so.