‘The War’ finds greatness in lives of ordinary people

[16 July 2007]

By Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

After a week now of TV critics mixing with producers, executives and stars, one production looms larger and larger over the fall landscape: Ken Burns’ seven-part film “The War.”

It’s rare for a PBS effort to get such a grip on the Television Critics Association press tour, but it comes partly because of the power of what we’ve seen of the film, and partly because of Burns himself.

“It’s the best thing we’ve done,” he told me before his press conference.

Burns calls “The War,” which will premiere Sept. 23, a “6 ½-year labor of love.” From seeing just one episode and short clips of others, it’s clear that the nearly 15-hour documentary on World War II carries enormous emotional power. One big reason for that is its point of view, which is, as Burns told critics, simply looking at the experiences of ordinary people.

“It’s a bottom-up look at the greatest cataclysm in American history, in human history,” he said. “We believe it is possible at moments to get a sense of what actually happened in that war. Not the good war of our imagination and subsequent public relations and sentimentality, but the worst war ever, responsible for the deaths of nearly 60 million human beings.”

Burns said he avoided the distraction of generals and politics and tactics—subjects that are important but have been covered by scores of shows and documentaries.

“We want to show what it was like to be in battle and, for some, to work and worry and wait and grieve back home,” he said. “We focused on how these so-called ordinary people remind us of the great promise often deferred, denied and delayed of our country—that is, that there are no ordinary people.”

Burns did this by documenting the stories of a handful of people from four U.S. towns—what they endured and felt, and what their families and friends felt at home. The film is 25 or 30 percent about the homefront.

“We’ve yet to run into a documentary that covers both the European and the Pacific theaters simultaneously with the homefront and doing it chronologically,” he said. “We land at D-Day. We jump home for the reaction. We go and initiate the battle of Saipan in the Pacific. We come back to Normandy and can’t break out of the hedgerows, go back and find a naval battle (in the Pacific), then come back home.”

Burns has dealt with criticism that there was not enough attention in the documentary paid to Latinos. Last week, he said he added nearly a half hour to his film, with separate new stories about two Latino veterans and an American Indian veteran that will be parts of three episodes.

It’s impossible to know if the protests from Latino groups were sincere concerns or political drumbeating, but the irony is that, if there is one historian not to beat up on the subject of diversity, it would be Ken Burns.

No historical documentarian on the American scene has been more consistent or more aware of the issues of race in this society and about the unfairness that’s been visited on minority groups over the centuries. Through his major films like “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz,” and in most of his shorter works, he has regularly made the point that, as he said to critics recently, “race is the fault line of America.” As for “The War,” it would be hard to argue with Burns’ ultimate reaction to the criticism.

“We listened as hard as we could and tried to hear beyond the rhetoric and the politics of it, the larger question,” he told TV critics. “That’s what we responded to, and that’s what we tried to speak to, as honorably and as humanely as we could.

“We produced some new material and ... these are stories that are as powerful as anything in the film and as good as anything we produced in the film.”

Burns and others at PBS first resisted the notion of having a historic work changed because of outside politics. But, to their credit, they changed their minds.

“I’ve been in the business for the last 30 years of telling stories that haven’t been told in American history,” Burns said. “It was, of course, painful to us, on one level, that people would misinterpret what the film was about, but we didn’t have the luxury of abstracting this. These (WWII veterans) are dying—1,500 a day is now the statistic.

“I think we’ve found the right balance, had the right compromise, that permitted us not to alter our original vision and version of the film, and at the same time honor what was legitimate about the concerns of a group of people who, for 500 years, had their story untold in American history.”

Still, “The War” is not about any one group, or any groups at all. It’s about the horror of war, about being forced to defend your country and your life, and about a generation that was willing to stand and fight, and about what it cost them.

“We just tend to take the Second World War and make it this mythological thing,” Burns said. “It’s wrapped in this bloodless, gallant myth.”

Burns has busted bloodless myths in a lot of his films, and he says that his approach this time is as grounded in the grit of humanity and war and survival as anything he’s produced.

“We were looking for specific combat experience,” he said. “We made a film in which we were not attempting to find out what made people distinct and different, but what made them the same and human.

“We’re just human beings, and human nature is always the same,” he said. “We can import some soldier from the Peloponnesian War, and he’d look at this film and go, `Yup.’”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/the-war-finds-greatness-in-lives-of-ordinary-people/