Review: The War (2007)

The War (2007)

Directed by: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick | 880 minutes | war, documentary, history | Starring: Keith David, Tom Hanks, Josh Lucas, Bobby Cannavale, Eli Wallach, Adam Arkin, Carolyn McCormick, Robert Wahlburg, Kevin Conway, Rebecca Holz, Samuel L. Jackson, Daniel Inouye, Quentin Aanenson, John Gray, Paul Fussell, Susumu Satow, Katharine Phillips, Glenn Frazier, Sascha Weinzheimer, Sidney Philips, Sam Hynes, Dwain Luce, Maurice Bell, Olga Ciarlo, Tom Ciarlo, Emma Belle Petcher, Asako Tokuno, Barbara Covington, Ray Leopold, Burnett Miller, Ray Pittman, Joseph Vaghi

Beautifully made 14-part documentary about the American war effort during World War II, which won three Emmys and other awards. After two Oscar-nominated documentary films and his multi-award-winning series ‘The Civil War’ (1990, about the American Civil War, 1861-1865), acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns turned his sights on the greatest armed conflict in history, simply called ‘The War’. .

The special thing about this series is the perspective: not telling the story of the war from the position of the leaders and their decisions, but letting ordinary people who have experienced the war themselves have their say. And while the names and images of the leaders, Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Mussolini and the American generals Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur, do pass by, ‘The War’ does not offer a standard chronological overview of the strategies, tactics and political decisions. . And where these are mentioned, it’s usually because it represented a fatal error of judgment for many of the soldiers who had to carry out the decisions.

Four towns are featured: Waterbury, Connecticut in the northeast; Mobile, Alabama in the South; Luverne, Minnesota in the Midwest and Sacramento, California in the West. The chosen approach also has its limitations: the war is mainly told from American experiences, which somewhat tempers the global impact of the war. Burns manages to circumvent most handicaps by regularly touching on the state of affairs in other battlegrounds, but the whole thing breathes a nationally oriented look. Understandable, but in that way ‘The War’ does not offer a complete overview of the war and is above all a valuable addition to existing material. For those well versed in World War II, there is still plenty to discover through the personal stories of survivors and the choice of “minor” events, less well known than the major battlegrounds.

Despite all the films, series, books and documentaries that have been made about the Second World War, ‘The War’ proves that there is still something new to add. Character actor Keith David is the narrator and his sonorous voice strikes just the right chord. Other actors, well-known and lesser-known, quote from letters or diaries: Tom Hanks voices Al McIntosh in his editorial commentary from his Luverne newspapers, Josh Lucas articulates the bitter, despairing sentences of Private Eugene Sledge’s diary. Mobile and an excellent Bobby Cannavale incisively read the letters that Private Corado “Babe” Ciarlo wrote to his family. The letters are addressed to his mother, but because she could not read English, Babe asks other members of the family to read to his mother and emphasize that he is doing well and that he does not actually experience any combat actions. His tone is always cheerful and cheerful, which contrasts with David’s voice-over, which tells that Babe actually experienced Ciarlo and his unit in Europe. But the most impressive are the veterans and those left behind themselves: their stories are very much alive, despite the fact that they are now elderly, and are at times funny, poignant and heartbreaking. Their emotions are palpable and sometimes visible, which gives the series an intimate character and an emotional anchor. Without doing the other speakers short, it is mainly the memories of Katherine and Sidney Philips, brother and sister from Mobile; Luverne pilot Quentin Aanenson and POW Glenn Frazier are the most memorable. Special mention is in order for Private Daniel Inouye, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, who not only witnessed Pearl Harbor, but was subsequently imprisoned—like many thousands of others—in an internment camp because of his heritage. Inouye would enlist and win the Medal of Honor in Europe in an action where he lost his right arm. After the war, he became a Democratic Senator and is a master storyteller.

Everything is pulled out to make ‘The War’ as complete as possible: original images, both in black and white and color (the latter especially in segments set in the Pacific), sound effects and photos. Burns often uses a still frame or still frame from a movie in his documentaries, under which he puts sound effects and commentary, while zooming in on a part of the photo: this is called the “Ken Burns effect”. Yet it never feels like a trick, because the effect gives an extra dimension to a certain situation. What is also striking is that horrors are made explicit. Soldiers who succumb psychologically, bodies that have been mutilated and dismembered, the emaciated victims of the Holocaust: it is all fully portrayed.

‘The Making Of’ is certainly also worth checking out, because it paints a nice picture of the difficulties of making this documentary series: for example, it took seven years to film, edit and produce the whole thing. The motivation: Every day a thousand veterans of World War II die and their voices and memories are lost forever. Burns and co-director Lynn Novick talk candidly about the genesis of the series and how difficult it has been to find veterans willing to talk about their wartime experiences. Despite the mentioned limitations in the choice of subject, it can only be said that ‘The War’ is a triumph and absolutely recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the Second World War.

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